Chapter 2:

Claire, 8 Years Ago

2173: Second Akro-Mars Conflict

  It might have been weird how the Federative Unity of the World's Sovereigns was passive; the former administrators of Akro and my sworn enemies didn't immediately react to the loss of their prized Megalopolis. And a terrifying one, I must say, that was the best example of their ideals.

Advanced technology allowed them absolute control and vigilance over every citizen. What they did, what they said, what they looked at, anything. Their point was to demonstrate what the pinnacle of obedience could reach, even if forced by whatever means necessary.

But most importantly, Akro was rumored to have the key to immortality; which is itself seen as the key to interstellar colonization, ideally under the Federation's flag.

But maybe it makes more sense now. Such impressive creation wouldn't be easily nuked, and taken over again; even if it did, would it be worth the damage dealt? The Federation was right to play the long game, and wait for a given opportunity. What I didn't expect, was that they would allow people to just settle near Akron and study it that easily, so they could rely on their preparations. A weird plan, but I can't judge it; I have a history of dubious planning myself.

It was our job to oversee a swift operation; those with the task of actually sneaking in Akro were a group of 3 selected individuals, with both skill and disregard. They didn't have a family waiting for them, nor a home to return to. Some of us were sad to see them go, and sure, one might even call them family in some way. That's just the way it is, I hoped. But thanks to our incompetence and its consequences, I couldn't look in Claire's eyes even when she decided to take some time and go back to the real world, far from the never-ending madness experienced around that city.

A series of unfortunate events put the mission into question. It was the third try from the people surrounding Akro's walls to find an exploit in its defenses, and the first try with my participation, as it was closer than ever to my location and I finally saw promise with the plan.

Akro's defenses oversee air, ground, and underground. Over the years it is clear that whoever's in charge of the perimeter is constantly improving their machines, as all defensive mechanisms improve efficiency with stronger, faster, smarter robots. But 22 years of observations preceding the operation taught us some general rules:

Firstly, the city border expansion. It is not achieved by the expansion of the thick, gray walls surrounding the place, but by the proliferation of toxic and radioactive substances, secreted by them. The intense heat and atmospheric pollution by the city are probably decisive to the desertification of hundreds of kilometers surrounding every side of the walls, as well as the manipulation of the climate in the whole region. That seems to be the mechanism used for keeping distance and further isolating Akro, discouraging invaders. Still, some exceptional regions blessed by geography are housing for half-decent living conditions, there, people with nothing to lose gather in clustered ugly towns and do the jobs I do. Getting closer to danger and retrieving the machines that wander too far off the city. I lived on the southwest side of the walls, known as the C-section, in the town of Curiosity. The north-east, north-west, and south-west portions of the walls are known as A, B, and D sections, respectively.

Then, there are the machines. Several types with several functions for each defensive need. On air and ground, thousands of drones rover silently with deadly weapons attached: high-calibers, flamethrowers, missiles, ion cannons, acid, you name it. This is where the most deadly and dangerous battles tend to occur. The toxicity of this environment and difficulties imposed by the terrain that is every day modified by high-tech terraforming machinery will soon completely shut off terrestrial vehicles. Roughly 60% of the terrain consisting of 2 kilometers from any point of the walls has now the format of solid soil dunes.

That being said, the only way remaining is underground, and it didn't take long for everyone to figure this out. It's the hardest environment for both attacker and defender, but it limits Akro's options. That's the way to go.

And that's where our scuffed operation came in.

In all four sections of Akron's perimeter, there was a very specific response to excavations approaching the walls. 3 types of robots encountered would-be invaders of the city, them being:

The drillers, which are self-explanatory;

The medusas, capable of acid secretion;

And the Reaper, famous for its odorless poison gas.

Each class of these is not mutually exclusive, seeing as the number of Driller Medusas increases yearly.

Very much like a bad joke, the solution encountered by Akro was as malicious as the Megalopolis normally tends to look: floods of acid and poisoning entire tunnel systems; abilities incorporated in robots capable of fast mobility underground and owners of an operational range of 1 kilometer from any point of the walls; it soon became clear that any operation of invasion would have to be fast: it'd be hard to save the infiltrators from a swarm of defenders, and very hard to complete the mission if they succeed in delaying the path-building. The timing was of the essence, but that was not our main issue.

The 3 individuals in question, chosen to make contact with the people on the other side of the walls for the first time in over 20 years, were Bruce, Juliet, and Leo. We didn't even know if they'd make it alive following a breakthrough, because of that, Bruce insisted that he as the older veteran had to go, despite my protests. Leo was a man of trust of the smuggler's leader, their group being the one in charge of the closest known base of operations in Akro's surroundings. Juliet was the mysterious one for me, word was that she came from a base in the A-section, and was supposedly a remainder of the first underground operation against Akro. The identities of those 3 were not of general knowledge even in our little underworld, as Bruce himself was a very unknown figure to the others. That's why there was no room for distrust.

The plan was surprisingly simple: to quickly excavate several tunnels all in different directions from distant points, to redirect all drillers and medusas into the decoys. At the same time, we had two bases at distant points from the operation setting off automatic small drillers, all coordinated with an ultimately unsuccessful cyber-attack. The goal was to extend Akro's line of defenses as flat as possible, and it was a costly one; that's why we had to accept nearly every helping hand.

The excavations operators and people in charge of communicating with the teams from other tunnels didn't need to worry about fighting, thanks to the armed volunteers accompanying them. I was one of those, of course, tasked with the one true tunnel. Our team also consisted of the 3 chosen ones, Claire and Justin in communications, Claire's brother Sasha and our friends Rick and Clark in fighting duty with me, and 3 of the most reliable drivers for the drilling machine. The teams from the two corner tunnels were estimated to advance 500 meters until an eventual overrun of Medusas and the order to retreat. Then, each tunnel closer to the center would have an increment of 100 meters, thanks to the time bought by the others.

Each team was composed exactly like ours, except for the 3 extras chosen for entry.

The first 30 minutes of the operation went smoothly, at a depth of 150 meters we had already covered a distance of 350 meters to the wall. But that's about what fate gave us before we received a communication from the ground-level base about an enemy invasion. It wasn't the Federation, though I still doubt they're unrelated. This merry group was known as a "Justice Brigand" determined to fight for Akro's freedom. The bloody fight they had with us put on some real panic in everyone. It is especially scary to fight with such potent guns in enclosed spaces. We couldn't cut ourselves out of the surface blocking the tunnels, so we had to run back and fight. The excavators were on their own.

I still remember vividly our run by those corridors, and as I left with the soldiers to shut off the invaders, that final look back, to see Claire and Justin's worried faces.

45 minutes in, 525 meters cleared. It is time for them to pick up the pace. We better finish this quickly and come back soon, I thought.

 - Hey, there can't be that many of them, right? They're just a sorry bunch, or so I heard...
 - I'm more worried about fighting on two fronts like that. They want to hunt us like rats!

My colleagues seem to be anxious about our fate. I'm not worried about us, though. I'm willing to die as long as the cause succeeds.

As we approach the sound of several steps and encounter the fighters from the other teams, I realize the seriousness of the situation. There's been the evacuation of 4 teams overrun by the defenses already, and soon it'll be 6. That's according to plan, but non-fighters will end up caught in the crossfire.

Besides that...

I can see soldiers from the first and second divisions of tunnels A, B, C, and D. But we're missing one division. Where are they at?

- HEY, has someone contacted those in Tunnel D's second division?! HAS anyone seen them?! - I shout as loud as I can

Confused looks. Should I leave them on their own? Are they in trouble, or the trouble itself? They're not communicating, either. But there's outside interference. Damn... this gets worse by the minute...

As every soldier gets in formation to defend the two stairs of the entrance to this underground system, I run to the missing division's aid.

I can hear the sound of gunshots, running, drills, and gas leaking, but the loudest of them was the sound of my breath.

When I got there, I had hell in sight. Blood covered the entire floor, and bodies were scattered. I didn't need to look closely. They didn't die by the Medusas and neither by the gas.

I can't deal with traitors anymore.

In this scenario I expected to at least find a continuation of the tunnel, turning in the other's direction.

But no, they ran into the chaos and blended in with the rest of the soldiers, probably disguising themselves as evacuated personnel.

By the time I got back to the fight with the brigand, I was close to exhaustion already. I never got tired so fast in my life. The shooting was still going on, meaning the backstabbing didn't continue here. The brigands were only a distraction, and it's clear what is their target.

As I find myself running in desperation once again in the span of only 10 minutes, I receive some quick pieces of information about how some of the soldiers noticed the sneaky traitors and persecuted them. Well, I'd known that anyway as midway through the tunnel I passed by some dead bodies. I can count 4 of them, but I don't have time to see which are which. I also see a trail of blood leading deeper into the tunnel.

I get closer and closer to the end, hearing my heartbeat increasingly louder. They've cleared approximately 990 meters, as my digital maps indicate. We're almost there. On the way, I've encountered medusas looking for targets, probably the ones that the traitor's division stopped attracting when they wiped out their division, but that was a mistake; I can only see these getting in the way of the sabotagers themselves.

After quickly finishing off the scattered medusas, I'm grateful to find the floor still acid-free.

Closer to the end, I come across the injured traitor, who took a shot to the leg. It's been a long, long time ever since I fought humans, but you do what you have to. I shoot him from behind and push on.

The sight of the end is complete chaos, as I most feared. Bruce is on the floor, with blood on his head, Juliet is laying down in a puddle of blood, while Julian is desperately tending to Claire. Her poison mask is broken, so he switches with her. Looking around, I see the bodies of one more soldier, probably the only traitor to make it here. Leo and the excavation operators are still unaccountable for, I need to get Julian and reach them fast. He takes the soldier's poison mask, and immediately rushes forward; of course, I follow him.

We run the last 10 meters that got just cleared minutes ago. Julian doesn't say anything, and he doesn't need to. Our 3 operators are dead, scattered around Leo. We both make visual contact and instantly shoot our guns, while Julian throws himself to the ground.

Just a moment feels like an eternity. I shoot again, and again, and again. This is the least precision I had in my life. I don't want to fail again.

Leo falls in slow motion, with blood on his chest. I realize he shot me once in my mechanical leg, and twice in my abdomen, and eventually, I fall.

What is the situation? Bruce, Juliet, and Leo can't go in. But the path's clear. Someone has to go. But who?

I have my answer as Claire and a familiar soldier slowly approach my location.

- Myke... Myke! Did Leo get in? - Claire worriedly says as she struggles to speak between her coughs

I make a negative moving my head. The poison gas is so dense here now that we have trouble seeing what's 3 meters ahead of us. Did the reapers change their poison's composition?

When the soldier that got here with Claire tries to get me up, I recognize him. Sasha. Well, of course. He's the only one besides me worried enough to rush this place amidst the battle, given an opening. But he's late. I'm glad he's alive, but at the same time, sad. I know where this is going.

- I'm sorry, but....the way is clear, and according to plan, it's going to be for the next 3 minutes... - even speaking is a challenge now, and I'm not proud of this suggestion

- Are you still.........the plan......failed, let's get out of here... - Claire's cough continues to increase

Sasha's serious look tells me he knows what I mean.

Julian has already gotten up and recovered, and he has his moment with Claire.

- Claire, my dear. I'm sorry. - Julian looks up, to briefly look at Sasha's face

- We're going in their place. Bruce has no condition, and Juliet is gone already... we are cut off from the rest by the robots, the only ones left...

She obviously wishes to protest, but her cough is unbearable. I don't know how bad is her condition, but I'm sure they'd want to go alone anyway.


We started walking back as Julian and Sasha entered the dark, abandoned tunnels beneath the Megalopolis of Akro. Hopefully, they'll find a way out.

It is a most painful feeling. To hurt a companion that has been so loyal to me, even when knowing I took part in the failed operation responsible for this whole situation. On this day, I thought I'd never look Claire in the eyes again. My weakness and bad decisions resulted in her loss. Her brother and her lover side by side, both walking off into the darkness.

Thankfully, Bruce could walk alone and help me, as Claire had a lot of pain moving forward even by herself. Eventually, we met our allies and got away from this warzone.

The smuggler's leader was apparently betrayed by Leo as much as us, but we had a hard time trusting him for a long time after that.

As for Julian and Sasha, we wouldn't have any news of them for the next eight years, until we finally got our chance.