by Brubek Coltrane
On a lonely, rusty platform on the outskirts of the grand city of Raxis, a small boy watched as his father boarded the warship Hammerhead, headed to fight the Kurdans in the war in the eastern regions. Little Jason Rhodes watched the Hammerhead’s engines spew out steam and smoke as it prepared to depart. On the edge of the cold steel platform, Jason could see far out into the wastelands that marked the edge of the border between Kurdan and the Empire. Jason ran to his father just as the great warship was about to set off.
Jason’s father, Arthur Rhodes, looked back and smiled grimly. “I’m afraid you can’t come with me, Jason, I’ve told you this before,” he said. “I’ll be home before you know it. Uncle Jack will take care of you.”
Jason nodded and then turned to leave, but his father called for him to stop.
“Wait,” his father said. “Take this.”
Arthur Rhodes handed his son a key. “Keep this safe,” he said. “I trust you with this.”
He ruffled Jason’s hair, and then stepped back onto the Hammerhead. Its engines roared and Jason’s dark, messy hair was blown back by the dark black gas spewing out of the exhausts. The Airship rose up, then chugged on slowly into the distance, and then disappeared behind a cloud of black smoke.
-10 years later-
Alone, Jason walked along the old, mossy bridge leading home. Behind him, in the distance, black skies filled with industrial smog loomed overhead. It seemed to Jason that the sky was getting blacker every day. He concluded that it was definitely darker than it was ten years ago.
As he reached the end of the bridge, he arrived at the beginning of a long stretch of narrow streets and alleys. The Kurdan district had all matter of small, impoverished, and sad dwellings in every nook and cranny of its few houses. Jason hated passing through the Kurdan district, mainly because of the Kurdans that were here. They clearly stood out with their ornate scarves, and accents. They had refused to give up their cultures when they were defeated in the Great War.
Jason looked at them vindictively. Every time he looked at them, they reminded him of his father. Serves them right, Jason thought to himself. They started the whole bloody war in the first place.
Jason had hated how Uncle Jack had forced him onto the path of becoming an engineer. Even though he was pretty good at fixing things, Jason despised the dark, smokey factories which whining with the constant drone of the heavy machinery. He really didn’t want to be part of the Imperial Engineers Guild, because he would have to spend his days working in those conditions. But in the end, really, what choice did he have? Ever since Uncle Jack’s death, Jason had been on his own, and he didn’t really have much of a choice.
Finally, after navigating through the packed streets and brushing past aggressive street vendors, he reached his home: a broken-down, 10-storey house that housed over two dozen residents. It was one of the oldest of its kind.
Which means there’s no elevator, Jason said to himself sourly, as he climbed ten flights of stairs to his floor. After reaching the top, now very tired and annoyed, he walked heavily towards the door to his room.
Inside, various garments and tools lay around haphazardly. A desk and a bed next to the window overlooking the street below. From an airship, the whole Residential area looked like a giant maze. As a result, the best view from his window was of the next block over and then a wall.
Jason was exhausted from working all day in the factories and collapsed onto his bed.
In his dream, Jason remembered living with Uncle Jack, who had grown more and more weary of caring for him. Jason knew it was only a matter of time before he would be kicked out for good, but then Uncle Jack caught the Creeping Flare, and since he was going to die, he left his home to Jason. Jason never forgot the last words he had said to him. “You’re one lucky devil.”
Jason woke up, and stretched his arms as he got out of bed. Time for another day of fun at the factories, he said to himself. And more bloody stairs!
Packing his bag with his goggles and tools for the day, he turned to open the door, his groggy mind still out of focus from waking up. Suddenly, he realized there was a box on the floor underneath his door. What in the Devil… He thought. How did that even get in here?
Curious, he looked at it by pacing around it, and then he noticed that there was a lock on the box, and the words Lt. Rhodes written on it in golden font. As he read it, he shook his head into focus. Lt. Rhodes? That was his father! Wait, there was the key! The one he had given so many years ago. Yes!
Heart pounding, Jason took the key from its place around his neck, and stared at it. Then, with a shaking hand, he unlocked the box.
Jason stared at a single slip of paper inside it. Curiosity pulsing through his nerves, he picked it up and read:
I know this sounds really crazy, and you probably won’t
believe me, but I know what happened to your father.
Meet me in the Industrial sector on Fleming Street.
I would not recommend coming unarmed, though.
Jason froze. It had been ten years since he had seen his father, Arthur Rhodes. And he was really unsure of what to do about this. He was not one to just go blindly into a situation without knowing anything. He was often very pessimistic about these sorts of things.
Looking at the letter again, he couldn’t help but wonder, Who was this ‘friend’ and why did the letter say to come armed? Jason didn’t really have any real friends apart from the engineer team which he hardly ever spoke to during his work.
After a long pause, Jason laughed. Nice try, ‘friend’, he thought. You won’t be tricking me today. He crumpled up the letter threw it out of the window.
But something told him to be on the safe side today. He opened the old drawer that Uncle Jack had kept locked for so long, and smashed it open. He felt a twinge of uneasiness as he held Uncle Jack’s old revolver. No, he thought. It won’t come to that. Loading six shots into it, he shoved it in with the rest of the things in his bag and left. Here goes nothing, he muttered to himself.
Three hours later, Jason disembarked the transport airship at the end of the ride and proceeded to walk down the smog filled streets of the Fleming Industrial district. The sound of machines straining to do the heavy work set out for them was omnipresent. Airships were all over the skies, slowly chugging to other cities, like Streels, or to the Capital.
It had been a long time since the war with the Kurdans. Jason never really knew much about the Kurdans, but what the other children and adults told him, and the fact that they took his father away from him, was enough for him to share everyone else’s view about them.
Breaking out of thought, Jason barely noticed two, darkly clothed figures that had seemed to be watching him through the busy streets. That’s a strange place to stand, Jason thought to himself, before pushing past a man in a great top hat. After turning a few corners, and passing a woman with a soot covered face, and goggles masking her eyes, he saw them again. When this happened a third time, Jason started to get the feeling this wasn’t a coincidence; he was being followed. Jason felt the revolver in his bag. It was still there.
Jason Rhodes was getting a little unnerved at this rate, and ducked into one of the side alleys where he knew they couldn’t follow him without purposely going there too. Plus, Jason still wasn’t one hundred percent sure they were still following him. If they were, this would prove it.
Walking down the alleyway, he looked up to see the endless series of pipes and nozzles, stretching up along the sides of the refinery walls, spewing out steam and gas. Up ahead, a particularly large cloud of steam blocked his view of the other side.
Suddenly, he heard two clicks behind him. A voice called out.
“Stop right there!” Someone called out threateningly.
Jason slowly turned around to see the same two darkly clad figures brandishing dangerous looking firearms straight at him. What is going on? Jason thought as his heart rate skyrocketed.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Jason managed to say, desperately trying to sound as unafraid as possible. It wasn’t working all that well.
The two figures looked at each other, then one of them spoke. “We have reason to suspect you have been helping the Kurdans,” he spoke.
“I would never…” Jason said, sounding certain about what he said, until he remembered the letter he had gotten that morning. His confidence dropped.
“We don’t take too kindly to traitors.” The other man said.
“W-wai-” Jason started to say.
The man raised his rifle. A shot rang out that shattered his courage. The alleyway seemed as quiet as the wastelands. Jason looked down at his chest, but it wasn’t bloody, and he didn’t feel any pain at all.
Looking up, he saw the man slump over and fall to the ground. Dead. The other man rushed to help his comrade, and as Jason watched this happen, a hand came out and pulled him into the smoke.
“Stay quiet,” he heard a girl’s voice say. “They’ll send more after us.”
Jason was too shaken at this point to question the logic of the situation. And so he followed whoever this person was through the smoke, unsure of who they were, or wether they were any better than the two men who had tried to kill him.
Finally, they reached the end of the alley; and as the smoke cleared, Jason saw his rescuer for the first time. She was a girl not much older than he was, with dark, flowing hair, and olive skin. Jason suddenly realized that she was wearing a scarf and woven cloak. That was when he knew that she was from Kurdan.
Instantly, he took out his revolver from his bag and raised it at her, only to find she had done the same.
“You’re one of them!” Jason said, “One of those stupid Kurdans!!!!”
“My name is Estra,” she said calmly, her strange-looking rifle trained on him with expert precision. “And yes, I am from Kurdan.”
The two circled each other, weapons trained.
“You’re the reason those people were following me, right!?” Jason yelled, all his anger taking over. For his Father, for Uncle Jack, and hundreds of other things that had nothing to do with Estra, but for which he was angry with her anyway. “Right!!?” He yelled again.
Estra smiled at him and shook her head. “Of course. You’re now officially a traitor to the empire.”
Jason was struck by the thought. The Empire he had worked so hard for, had given everything to, was now against him all because of this one, stupid Kurdan. But Jason stayed his hand, out of curiosity. Angrily, he asked. “What is it you bloody well want?”
“You got the letter, I see?” She asked, still eyeing him cautiously. “You took my advice.” She eyed his revolver with a keen eye.
“It was you?” Jason said, tightening his grip on the revolver. “You sent me that box?”
“Yes, it was me. Now are you going to listen to me or not?” She said, sounding less concerned.
“How did you get my father’s trunk? Why are you doing this?” He asked, every instance in him burning to pull the trigger on her, but for curiosity’s sake, he relented. “Answer me, you filthy Kurdan!”
That was it for Estra, who threw down her rifle. “Listen!” She said. “I’m not your enemy! They are.” She threw up her hands and then motioned her head to the sounds of shouting and commotion that were coming nearer.
Jason stood there. Revolver still trained on Estra.
“Look, I just saved your bloody life!! Is that not enough?” She shouted. “I could have just let you die!”
Jason snapped out of the focus he was in. Biting through his malice, he asked as calmly as he could. “You’re right,” he said. “Where do we go?”
“Follow me.” She said, “And keep you’re revolver out.”
Estra ran to the edge of the corner, and peered around it. Instantly, a volley of shots came ricocheting off the walls as Estra turned back.
“Well, We can’t go that way,” she said, somehow unshaken by the fact she was mere seconds away from getting shot in the face.
Jason was near hysterical. But he didn’t want to look scared in front of Estra, his enemy.
“We have to go up,” she said, and both of them looked up at the maze of pipes and other protruding things that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky.
“That’s ridiculous!” Jason said. “How in the he-” A chorus of shots rang out, bouncing off of the pipes right in front of him, one bullet whizzing inches past his ear.
Instantly, Jason’s fight or flight instincts kicked in, and he jumped and grabbed one of he pipes and clambered up.
“Come on!” Estra said, already far ahead of him.
“You’re crazy!” Jason yelled back, as more shots ricocheted off of the walls, somehow not hitting him or Estra.
She smiled in response in a crazy sort of way, and kept climbing faster. Jason knew they weren’t going to last long on the wall. As another round hit the pipes, Jason couldn’t take it anymore. “We can’t have them keep shooting at us!” Jason yelled. “Let’s surrender.”
“I don’t think that’s an option.” Estra said, as a pipe was ripped from it’s place by a storm of shots.
Jason was scared now. There was no escape, they were doomed. He looked up at Estra, who didn’t seem to be sharing that same feelings.
Estra looked back at him, and yelled something, taking out a strange looking tool. Jason looked down, it was a pretty long way. He looked up again,
“What was that?” He called out.
Estra hitting a big looking pipe, while trying to say “Hold on!”. She hit the pipe again and again, each time, the pipe became weaker and weaker.
“What are you doi-” was all Jason could manage.
With one last strike, the pipe exploded, sending a flood of super hot, black liquid gushing out onto their pursuers below. Jason grabbed onto a protruding pipe, and held on for dear life. After hearing the screams of agony from their attackers below. Jason looked back up. Estra was waving her hands for him to follow
Frantically, he followed Estra as they scampered up the rest of the pipes.
“In here!” She called back, motioning to a really big pipe.
Jason pulled himself up, and took one last look behind him. Woah. He said to himself. That’s a long way down. The streets down below were covered in the whatever black liquid that the pipe was carrying. Looking back, he scrambled into the massive pipe that Estra was already in. He sat down next to her, feet dangling off the edge. Gasping a sigh of relief, he slowly sat himself back up, and looked at the view below.
Airships slugged across the sky, thousands of people scurried about on the ground, and the blasted smoke that was ever present, obscured everything else. Estra motioned for Jason to follow her, and they both walked deeper into the pipe.
Bulging with adrenaline, Jason exploded.
“What the Devil is going on?” he yelled, though, most of these
Estra looked up at him, and smiled. “Let’s start over” she said. “My name’s Estra. I’m from Kurdan.”
“Jason Rhodes, Imperial Engineers Guild?” Jason replied, still a little uncertain.
Estra feigned shock “The empire? You’re one of them.” She teased, pointing her finger at him the shape of a gun.
“Ha ha ha very funny.” Jason said sarcastically.
An awkward silence followed.
Estra broke the silence “You don’t know how much trouble I’ve gone through to find you Jason Rhodes.”
“Why though?” Jason asked. “Why come all the way from Kurdan, to find someone who hates you?”
“Have you really tried to eve get to know a Kurdan?” She asked, looking him straight in the eyes.
Looking back into those dark, wishful eyes, Jason couldn’t understand why they showed no sign of malice for him, despite all the things he’d done and said to her. Why had she saved his life? Jason knew that he would have never done the same for her.
“We’re just people you know!
“You knew my father?” Jason asked, a new calm overcoming him.
Estra gazed off into the hazy skies, then looked him dead in the eyes. “I know this is going to be hard to understand Jason, but…” She trailed off. “But Kurdan isn’t like what they say it is. We’re not evil. We’re just like you.”
“But the war!” Jason said, a hint of his prior anger coming back “You started it!”
Estra’s demeanor started to change “Is that my fault?” She said. “Do you think I wanted the war to happen? I lost my mother,my brothers. my father, everyone!!!”
Jason grew silent. “I’m…I’m sorry” wad all he managed to say. “I lost my father, he was the last but of family I had left.” Remembering that lonely platform where he stood on so many years ago. Remembering his father’s airship disappear into the smoke.
She began to speak again, the sadness in her voice very real. “I was very young when the war we went to war. You have to understand, Our country, was running out of resources, we didn’t have enough food, not enough water…We tried to ask your empire to help us.” Estra paused, her sadness growing into anger. “But they just turned their backs on us, and would have let us die!”
Jason looked away. He’d never been told this side of the story before. All these years, he felt like he was part of a great empire, and everything he did was to serve and better the empire in every way he could. He had been so wrong. What had the Empire ever done for him in return? Nothing.
“Why.” Jason suddenly asked. “No one has ever tried to help me, or saved my life before. You’ve sacrificed more for me in this last hour than than anyone has done for me in my entire life!” Jason said.
“Because you’re father did the same for me, many years ago.” She said, looking down at her feet as she rodded on.
“I was ready to give up. Everyone I knew was dead. I hated the empire with every last breath. I would have killed Arthur Rhodes if I was strong enough to do it.” She said again. pulling her hand into a fist.
“But instead of finishing me off, he…he saved me. That was the day I realized, that even though the empire was what I hated with all my heart and soul, there were those who were different.” She said, then looked up at him. “Jason…I’m sorry.”
“What for?” He asked, not even remembering she was Kurdan.
“You’re father went so far as to lay down his life for me.” She said, looking at him, with tears starting to stream down his face. “In his last breath, he told me to find you, and gave me his key.
She was struggling to keep herself from breaking down, and Jason saw it in her eyes. Without a warning, and without even thinking, they embraced each other in a hug. Estra was crying into Jason’s shoulder. Jason was trying to comprehend what was happening. In that moment, Jason felt comfort. He didn’t feel alone anymore. He didn’t feel any of the feelings he had ever had towards Kurdan. Mere hours ago, he would have killed her without remorse. But now, it was different. Jason finally out his mind to rest, and no longer hated Estra, or Kurdan. In that moment, he no longer thought of Estra as his enemy, but as his friend.
They stood there in each other’s arms for what seemed like forever, together, the two broken people felt complete with each other, and there was no Empire, no war, no person, who could keep them from being that way.
Like all things though, it had to end. And as they stood in the dimly-lit pipe in the middle of a city filled with smoke. They looked into each others eyes. A sudden shout broke their gaze.
Looking out the end of the pipe, Jason saw that they were trapped. At least a dozen guards stood, brandishing weapons that were far superior to theirs.
“Let them take me.” Estra said. “At least you can live.”
“No.” Jason said. “If you go, then I go.”
They looked at each other again, this time, they both wore grave expressions
Estra took a deep breath, and picked up her rifle. Jason picked up his revolver.
“I guess this is it.” Jason said.
“I’m glad I found you, Jason Rhodes.” Estra said, sparing one last glance at him.
“Me too.” Jason said.
With that, they ran out of the pipe. Into a storm of Imperials they charged. But Jason didn’t care. Because for once in his life, he knew exactly what he was fighting for.