Chapter 3:



Having parted ways with Ezekiel, Sulla needed to make his way back into the lower levels. That was where he had come from and where he felt most comfortable, he knew his best shot was to seek out old friends and contacts from before the army; that is if they were still alive. Sulla knew that going back down into the Undercity was his best chance of remaining undetected while the military was searching for him. And so he made his way down level by level, carefully staying out of sight from patrols and drawing as little attention to himself as possible. As the sun faded with each passing level, he was able to move more quickly under an increasing cover of darkness.

Veii was a megalopolis of over a hundred million people; by far the largest city in Minos. It was divided into 121 levels with the bottom level known as The Floor. The top 21 levels were reserved for the Dynatoi and their associates: the government, the Church, and the ultra-wealthy. Regular members of Veii society were concentrated in Levels 31 through 100: the law-abiding middle and working classes. Levels 1 through 30 comprised the Undercity, it was where the flotsam and jetsam of society congregated: twenty-five million of the poor, the castoffs, and the criminal elements called it home. It was also only lightly patrolled by the authorities who could not spare the resources to enforce the law there. Centuries of governmental neglect had led the Undercity to develop its own cultures, traditions, and even quasi-political institutions. This led to the Undercity becoming a major political and economic problem for the Dynatoi and the Holy Church; a lack of law enforcement meant that this was the hotbed of anti-government and anti-Church activity in Veii. By now the Undercity had grown so massive, so convoluted, and so poorly managed that any attempt to oppress it by force had become futile. The Undercity had become a de facto autonomous territory that was only nominally ruled by the Dynatoi.

Thirty-two years ago, before Sulla was born, the government had sent a massive punitive expedition to destroy the myriad anti-government groups and criminal gangs for the purpose of bringing order to the Undercity. The military, Church, and most Dynatoi families had contributed resources and soldiers to this expedition: dubbed Operation Anvil. They committed over half a million soldiers and a hundred billion florins. The operation was a complete failure; the fractious gangs, cults, and revolutionaries of the Undercity, who normally spent most of their time fighting each other, united in the face of this existential threat. They inflicted heavy casualties on the government army and forced them to retreat in humiliation. Ever since then, the Dynatoi had treated the Undercity with apprehension. Instead of directly intervening, they had adopted a policy of manipulation and bribery of the various factions and criminal gangs to keep them at each other's throats. The failure of Operation Anvil had taught the Dynatoi a vital lesson: when united, the Undercity posed a major threat to their rule, it was imperative to keep them off-balance and divided. The Dynatoi had also adopted a policy of containment, the goal of which was to prevent any influence from the Undercity from infecting the rest of Veii. The authorities tried to curtail travel to and from the Undercity but in practice the border was extremely porous; it was easy for wealthy travelers from the upper levels to descend to the Undercity for undesirable services, though it was far harder for anyone to make it to the upper levels.

Still, the government would ruthlessly crush any attempt by Undercity cults and revolutionaries to spread their influence to the higher levels. These brutal expeditions had come to be known as Blood Raids for their extreme ferocity. Years ago, Sulla had participated in one of these Blood Raids against a revolutionary cell known as the Red Hand that had been committing terrorist acts in the upper levels. The expedition of the XII Guards Division that Ezekiel had described was a failed Blood Raid. The authorities still patrolled the Undercity from the safety of their floating armored platforms, and their agents were always at work, keeping a watchful eye on developments. But the actual authority of the government in the lower levels was limited. Real political authority had devolved to the various criminal organizations, anti-Church cults, and anti-government secret societies.

The corollary to these policies was that the residents of the Undercity were severely limited in their opportunities. People usually made a meager living selling their brainpower on the Interface or working for one of the gangs. Many simply starved, died of disease, or were killed in the countless ruinous conflicts between rival gangs and cults. Generally there were only two ways for a denizen of the Undercity to make it to the upper levels legally. They could join the army which entailed a high risk of death, which is what Sulla did. Or they could find employment as servants with a wealthy upper-level family.

Sulla entered a public city elevator, he knew that it would only provide him access down to the 31st level, just above the Undercity. As the elevator raced downwards Sulla considered his options; he could try to force his way through a checkpoint but this was risky and he might get killed or captured. He knew that the wealthy travelers to the Undercity usually bribed the checkpoint guards to let them through but Sulla had no money, besides, the guards would be on the lookout for him after his escape. Sulla would have to find another way into the Undercity from the mid-levels, he didn’t have many contacts on these levels but he would have to try.

The elevator stopped on Level 45 and Sulla got out. Level 45 was a poorer section of Veii, though much wealthier than the Undercity. There was a strong criminal presence here, however, the authorities maintained a far greater level of control compared to in the Undercity. Level 45 seemed to be suspended in a permanent state of twilight; only a limited amount of sunlight penetrated this far down, though the streetlights were kept in relatively good working order unlike most of the Undercity. Sulla spied a squad of military police patrolling the street outside the elevator. He knew that by now pictures of him had been distributed to every unit in the city with orders to capture or kill him.

Sulla’s goal was to find his old army friend Johannes who lived on this level after a medical discharge. Sulla had met and befriended Johannes in basic training, they had fought together in the Thulean campaigns until Johannes was torn apart by shrapnel. Against all odds, Johannes had survived and his body was reconstructed with mechanical implants, but he had suffered a mental breakdown that made him unfit to continue fighting. Before his discharge, Johannes had given him the address of his house on Level 45, and told Sulla to find him if he ever needed help.

Ducking into an alley to avoid the patrol, Sulla saw graffiti on the walls depicting twin serpents entwined as he made his way to Johannes. With his augmented hearing he picked up on the whispered conversations of the strangers around him. Paired with augments that enhanced his mental abilities, he was able to carefully sift through the immense number of sounds and voices to focus on information he needed. Any conversation related to Sophia, Blood Raids, and cult activities were filtered through for his perusal.
“Did you hear about the Blood Raid on Level 50?” A young woman anxiously asked her boyfriend.

“I heard that the government troops were forced back. I think a lot of them died. Let’s hope they never come here,” The man next to her replied.

As Sulla continued to follow his mental image of Johannes’ presumed location on the town map, he found himself further and further from the elevator into the outskirts of the level as he headed South. Around him, the landscape and smog of Level 45 seemed to melt into the twilight, forming an uneasy haze. After several more hours of navigating, Sulla finally arrived at his destination. It appeared to be a well-maintained house, painted stark white with spotless windows. The surrounding neighborhood was lifeless, and Sulla felt a tense atmosphere permeate the air. Taking a deep breath, Sulla knocked on the door, there was no answer. Suddenly, the blood-curdling shriek of a siren ruptured the still air. It was a warning for all citizens to stay indoors, but this was a non-issue regarding this district. In the distance, beyond the range of a normal human eye, Sulla spotted a detachment of soldiers engaging a group of masked guerrilla fighters near a munitions factory. He couldn't risk one of their augmented commanders spotting and recognizing him from afar, Sulla was left with no choice. He timed a heavy kick on the door with the explosion of a grenade, masking the sound of his forced entry from the soldiers. While an augmented pair of ears could differentiate the two, he knew from experience that soldiers were almost always locked in an intense focus during combat; they would not process information that their enhanced brains deemed to be irrelevant. Under his strength, the door lock easily gave way and he rushed indoors.

Once inside, he discovered the house completely vacant. The floor was cold, polished marble, but it was much too dark to see beyond the hallway, even for his enhanced eyes. He switched on the lights and was startled. White paint matched the walls outside, and there were no decorations or furniture in sight. Abnormally, the house was completely free of dirt and dust as if it were thoroughly cleaned weekly. On edge, he pulled out the sidearm he had taken from a dead prison guard and employed the usual military clearing tactics, ensuring each room was safe. In a couple of minutes he determined the house had no active threats, but this made Sulla even more unsettled. He wondered why Johannes would leave him the address of a suspiciously empty house that was still being cleaned regularly. After all, it had only been two or so years since they last met, and he could not imagine anything happening to one of the strongest and most reliable soldiers he knew. Walking over to the northernmost corner of the house, he peered through the blinds of the window that faced the center of Level 45. Between the massive structures neighboring the elevator and the window of the house was a plume of smoke rising from the munitions factory. He could still hear the sirens and the sounds of the battle. For now, Sulla had nowhere else to go.

He already spent time looking around the house for clues that could point to Johannes’ apparent disappearance, but the inside of the building was nearly impeccable. Sulla had plenty of time to think, and began pacing the floor. His footsteps echoed through the halls of the house as he mulled over everything he encountered today, scrupulously making sure he hadn’t missed any details. It was too risky to show his face outside and ask the neighbors about Johannes, and there were no supplies in the house. Sulla was beginning to run out of time. He continued his walk, pondering why Johannes would even tell him the address in the first place. Abruptly, his pacing came to halt. While a regular civilian wouldn’t notice, the footsteps produced along the hard floor of the northernmost room had a slightly hollower resonance. Even with his enhanced hearing, Sulla barely noticed it. There was an empty space beneath this part of the house. With this discovery, his eyes darted across the floor of the room. There had to be an access to this space somewhere. Gazing toward the floor, it consisted of alternating black and white marble tiles. They were arranged in a square, Sulla counted 8 columns and rows, imitating a chess board. Recollecting his days in training with Johannes, they had initially bonded over their similar backgrounds; Ennoia was taken a year before Sulla joined the military, and Johannes’s brother was killed in the crossfire of a Blood Raid on Level 33. Soon they established a friendly rivalry over the course of three years of training. Johannes boasted higher physical stats, setting many records in the academy for strength, speed, and endurance. Sulla was gifted with a faster reaction time, tighter control of his augments, and a more tactical way of decision-making that made him a promising officer candidate. In all the years they had known each other, Sulla had never lost a game of chess to Johannes. Assuming the entrance of the door corresponded to the chess space 1a, he would stomp on the tiles in the order of his preferred opening sequence against Johannes. He stomped on tiles E2 and E4, bringing out a pawn in front of his King. He remembered how Johannes would also respond in kind, and so Sulla activated tiles E7 and E5.  Lastly, he confidently stamped on E1 and E2. Underneath him, a 4x4 space in the center of the room gave way to a staircase.

Not wasting any time, he descended the staircase into what he thought was the basement of the house. After making his way down for what seemed like an eternity, he finally reached a dark and damp series of tunnels. A suffocating mixture of sewage in the middle area and countless high-voltage electrical cords lined the walls. Sulla figured he was at least 100 meters below where he started.  It appeared that the house was a front for passage into The Enclosure, a maintenance system that functioned as the circulatory system of Veii that also separated the Levels from each other. It was traversed by impoverished workers that maintained the systems across Veii; they were usually hired out of the Undercity and regarded by upper-class citizens as a part of the sewage. This was dirty, demeaning, dangerous work that only the truly desperate would undertake. Trudging along the tunnels, the stench was especially difficult to bear for Sulla’s augmented sense of smell, and his eyes started watering. Covering his nose, he made out an array of graffiti along the wall, most of them emblems and signs representing various underground groups. Some banners he recognized as organizations he had fought during his time as a soldier: the open red hand and the three headed eagle among others as well as a handful of crudely drawn twin snakes. Directionless, he continued along until his visual augmentations detected heat signature changes about 1800 meters away. From all directions, something was moving towards him. He crouched and gripped his sidearm. As they closed in on him, he counted about fifty individuals armed with rifles. There was no place for cover, and it was likely that his movements had been detected a while ago. Sulla heard the echo of a raspy female voice from the darkness.

“Drop it. Unless you wanna get clipped,” said the woman.

Sulla let out a sigh of relief. He could already tell the movements of this militia were undisciplined and not very well-coordinated, and this woman spoke with the guttural accent of The Floor. Sulla had probably found himself in the hands of a major crime faction. Flashlights illuminated his body and blinded him. He made out the source of the voice; it was a girl no older than Ennoia, with snow-white hair and mournful gray eyes.

“Put him to sleep.” She commanded.

Cold steel slammed into the back of his head, and his vision went black.

A bucket of cold water met his face and Sulla jumped awake. The room was cold, encased entirely in metal. The air was stale, with the distinct smell of dried blood lingering. He was tied to a chair, and across the table were two criminals eyeing his augments. Each armed with a five-shot revolver, they put up a tough, menacing look. Underneath their expressions, however, Sulla could discern their body temperatures, heartbeats, and the sweat on their hands. They had a vague idea of what he was capable of, and knew they were no match for him. Sulla stared down the goons for what seemed like minutes, until the door slammed open. The white-haired woman from the tunnels entered the room, shooting him a frigid glance. Behind her was the outline of a brawny, mustached man. Looking closer, Sulla’s eyes went wide. It was none other than Johannes.

Now with a mustache and a body that was about half machine, Johannes immediately recognized Sulla and let out a guffaw that echoed all around the facility.

“Well I’ll be damned! Wasn’t expecting you down here so soon,” joked Johannes.

“Court-martial,” Sulla quickly replied.

“Of all people, how on earth did you get court martialed?”

“They were gonna make us kill POWs. A lot of them were women and kids. I’m sure you remember Syphax.”

“Sadly I’m not surprised. But escaping a court-martial, how the hell are you still alive?” asked Johannes, bewildered.

“If I’m being honest, it was pure luck. I happened to get locked up with another party that was about to escape at the same time. Managed to find my way down without drawing attention to myself. Until I met your friends here, anyway.” Sulla cracked a smile, the first genuine one he’s had in months.

“Sorry about all this, we detected military signatures from your augments in the tunnel and thought you were a scout. By the way, why haven’t you untied him yet?” Johannes glared at his subordinates.

“Right away boss,” a footsoldier replied, seemingly panicked.

His hands free to move, Sulla was able to relax back in his chair.

“So how did you end up here? And the've been planning this for a while haven't you?” asked Sulla.

“Well, it’s a long story....” Johannes replied.