Moonlight trickling in through the half-shut blinds, the still silence of Aurora’s apartment evoked a sense of soft serenity until it was broken by a cacophony of shattered metal and wood. Instantly awake from her deep sleep, she rose from her bed to find five darkly uniformed men brandishing rifles pointed at her.
“Move!” the most muscle-bound one, the apparent leader, barked through a demonically-shaped night vision mask as he grabbed Aurora’s arm roughly.
“Wha—?” Aurora mumbled groggily, still trying to understand the situation. Unfortunately though, her ignorance would have no bearing on what would be happening to her next. The loud man’s grip was crushing her wrist, and she had little choice but to submit to his orders. Dragged out of her bed, still wearing her Empire-rationed nightwear, she was thrown to the floor. She felt a weight on the center of her back as one of the men held her down and the leader barked again.
“By the authority of Emperor Darius Nyhrin, you are under arrest!”
“Shut up!” the leader yelled as he kicked her. “You’re coming with us whether you’re conscious or not! Your choice!”
Aurora fearfully acquiesced as the man holding her down pulled her hands behind her back and slapped on a pair of cold, metallic handcuffs. As if she were as light as air, the leader yanked Aurora off the floor in a single motion and lead her out of the apartment.
Greeting her outside was a heavily reinforced military transport van, emblazoned with various insignia of the Empire, clearly the property of the Vanguards. She was pushed into the caged rear section while the uniformed men filed into the front. The van whirred to life as the driver engaged the hydrogen-powered motor. Gliding through the dark city as the clouds began to obscure the moon, Aurora found little comfort in the thought that her abduction would never be made public.
Very little was made public in the Empire. The public was dirt under the gold-threaded shoes of the exalted Emperor. One could only be so lucky to have their life snuffed out in his name. Or at least, that’s what they were told to feel lucky about. In reality, everyone Aurora knew was terrified out of their minds, and Aurora herself was no different.
I don’t want to die.
The Emperor’s stranglehold over the people in his ever-expanding territory was absolute, and just as often brutal. The situation Aurora found herself in was certainly not unique. Justice had no meaning within the bounds of the Empire. It was swift and harsh. Darius Nyhrin was judge, jury, and prosecutor over every matter brought to his ears. And what was within his earshot was swelling at an alarming rate.
The Vanguard transport hit a pothole going down the narrow street as it turned onto the main road. From the sterile glare of the van’s headlights, Aurora could barely make out the rusted name on the ancient street sign as it passed in the dark: Rue Bourbon. It quickly vanished out of sight as it was swallowed up by the perpetual darkness of the city once again. As per the Emperor’s mandate, all lights had been extinguished with the setting sun. And Aurora felt she’d be next as she sat alone with her own thoughts, left to contemplate her fate.
I don’t want to die.
The bloodstains soaked into the interior of the vehicle gave the impression that what came next would be contrary to that single most desperate unvoiced plea. She bit her lip in trepidation as the van seemed to accelerate—offr were her perceptions as panicked and disoriented as she was? Was the van actually decelerating? She couldn’t tell anymore. Her fingers spasmed against the coarse cage behind her as she pressed them forcefully against the mesh, half unconsciously, cutting bloody gashes into them. Her eyelids fluttered. Was she staring at the dark abyss engulfing her? Or had she only closed her eyes?
Something hard struck her on the side of the head. Her mind still dizzy, she realized she’d collapsed on the floor, having been jolted by abrupt braking. The Vanguard lieutenant opened the door and half smiled at seeing Aurora laid out on the floor with a disparaged expression strewn across her face.
“Out, now!” he barked, as Aurora slowly righted herself and complied with his order. As she hopped onto the pavement, the lieutenant grabbed her roughly by the arm again and led her into an ominous, monolithic building.
I don’t want to die.
The building’s interior was an unlit labyrinth of corridors and offices, save for the displays of the computer-controlled building navigation system, which the lieutenant promptly accessed with the keycard around his neck.
“Please enter destination,” the monotone, electronic voice of the computer requested.
“Interrogation room 3-A,” the lieutenant answered, still dragging Aurora by her arm.
Instantly, the luminescent tracks along the floor pointed the way through the building’s maze. Aurora stumbled along, repeatedly tripping over herself, as the lieutenant dragged her through the complex. None of the other rooms were occupied. The entire facility was abandoned. Night operations were prohibited by Imperial mandate. How lucky for her that this Vanguard unit was exempt from such prohibitions. If it weren’t for the metal clinking of holstered weapons and the padded stomping of reinforced boots, the station would be dead silent.
The lighted path ended at a small room near the end of a narrow corridor. The sign above the door read IR 3-A in bold, black letters. The lieutenant flung the door open brutishly and forced Aurora into one of the chairs situated near the center of the barren room. Before leaving, he kneeled down, eye-level with her—one last castigation.
“Now, I’ll be right outside. Please, try to escape. My friend at the morgue’s been kind of lonely lately.” he quipped with a malevolent grin, laughing as he left the room and closed the door behind him.
The echoic room she’d been left in was eerily silent after the lively exit of the lieutenant. Aurora, left to her own thoughts yet again, slumped her head down in miserable desolation. The sweat-soaked strands of her smog black hair slid over her face, obscuring her eyes from the blinding yellow light of the lamp before her.
I don’t want to die.
After what seemed like ages, Aurora heard the click-clacking of footsteps on the other side of the door. She recognized the voice of the lieutenant utter something unintelligible. A new, distinctly feminine voice answered him back. The door to the interrogation room opened loudly again, and Aurora was greeted by the sight of the most unintimidating agent of the Empire she’d ever seen. Teetering on five-inch pumps, her tall, thin physique swayed in the entranceway. Her methodically painted nails clung to the wall for stability, but the trembling of her straight brown hair gave away that it was in vain. Swinging her metal briefcase like a counterbalance pendulum, she strode into the room and sat down in the chair facing Aurora. Slamming the briefcase onto the desk between them with a jarring clang, she stared menacingly at Aurora for several seconds. Her thinly applied pastel pink lipstick curled into a scowl and her immaculate eyebrows furrowed as if her body was physically rejecting Aurora’s presence.
“Well, hello there,” she said in a haughty, condescending tone.
Silent repose was Aurora’s only response.
The interrogator looked sideways toward Aurora and smiled. “No… nothing?” She scoffed as she continued. “No matter, your compliance is just a formality at this point. My name is Florina Lovelace. I’m here to verify some information before the Empire proceeds with your prosecution. Will you answer my questions?”
Aurora kept her head down in silence.
Florina let out an impatient sigh. “The hard way… fine,” she said and swiftly grabbed Aurora by her hair and ran her head into the desk. “Now, answer my questions, or I promise it will get worse.”
Aurora looked up at her interrogator as a small line of blood trickled down her forehead. “Alright.”
“Good,” Florina declared as she let go of Aurora’s hair. Pushing Aurora back in her chair, Florina unlatched her briefcase and pulled out a handful of documents. “Now, your name is Aurora Serafin, correct?”
“You were born September 13th, CY405?”
“So, that makes you 19?”
“You’re 170 centimeters tall, and you weigh 54 kilograms?”
“You’ve lived in the Nyhrin Empire all your life?”
“You currently reside at 972 Mythra Street, Suite 44 in the Old Quarter of Bourbon City?”
“You are unmarried and currently reside alone?”
“Your parents are deceased and you have no siblings?”
“You have no other family?”
“You’re currently employed as a nurse at Bourbon General Hospital?”
“You are a loyal subject of the Empire?”
“About which part?”
Florina clenched her fist and pounded the table forcefully. “I believe I’m the one asking the questions here! Why are you lying?”
“I haven’t lied about anything.”
“Don’t fuck with me, little girl!” Florina screeched as she grabbed her still-open briefcase and swung it at Aurora’s face. Knocked off the chair, Aurora lay sprawled on the floor, any energy left to retaliate long drained. The room started spinning and her vision darkened as Florina stood over her, mockingly.
I don’t want to die.
“You had to choose the hard way, didn’t you?” were the last words Aurora heard as she lost consciousness. “I wonder how you’ll fare at Wrigley…”
Δ Δ Δ
Aurora’s eyes shot open to the bright morning sun peering in through the small caged window of the spartan holding cell she found herself in. There was a puddle of dried blood on the floor beneath her, a souvenir from the night before. She coughed sharply as she stood up, sore and bruised, her hands still bound behind her back. She looked around, trying to get her bearings and hoping that the ringing in her ears would stop soon.
The atmosphere had an almost tranquil quality to it. The cell itself was pleasantly lit, and outside Aurora could faintly make out the song of a bird, looking for its morning meal, no doubt. Indeed, if it weren’t for the black eye, potentially bruised ribs, and the metalic taste of blood in her mouth, things might actually be bearable.
The serene stillness of Aurora’s cell was quickly interrupted, however, by the arrival of a familiar brute. The same lieutenant from last night stood before her with the same gnarly grin, chuckling as he unlocked the cell door.
“Good morning,” he facetiously started, “sleep well?”
A pitiable groan was all Aurora would give him the satisfaction of hearing.
“Lucky you,” he continued, “you’ve won a free trip to our glorious capital! Aren’t you excited?”
Aurora just stared at him, motionless and unblinking this time. Apparently, this was the wrong response.
“Fine fucker, be that way.” The lieutenant grabbed her by the arm, just as forcefully as he had last night. He dragged Aurora out of the cell and down the hallway to the elevator. Once inside, he pressed the button for the ground floor as the doors closed. A monotonous artificial voice called out the floors as they descended in increasingly uncomfortable silence.
“Fifth floor… Fourth floor… Third floor… Second floor… Ground floor.”
The doors opened to a hallway full of people in Vanguard uniforms going about their day. Majors, captains, even other lieutenants all hurried about their usual trivialities. Most didn’t even acknowledge Aurora as she was schlepped toward the back of the musky detention center. In accordance with Imperial “justice”, this was the day-to-day after all. Nothing new to see here.
After a web of offices and corridors, each just as bleak as the last, the two arrived at a rather large, gray metallic door. It looked quite imposing compared to the dreariness of the rest of the building. This particular door required a handprint scan to unlock, so the lieutenant placed his right hand on the sensor pad situated on the wall next to the door. There was a satisfied ping as his handprint was accepted and the door unlocked.
The intense morning sun overwhelmed Aurora as she was dragged out to an alleyway behind the detention center, squinting her eyes as they adjusted to the light. In the alley, four heavily armored Vanguard transports were parked in a line, engines on and ready to roll. The lieutenant pulled Aurora to the back of the second one in line, opened the rear door, and gestured inside with a knobbly finger.
Aurora complied unflinchingly. Sitting herself on a bench that ran along the side wall, she looked back at the lieutenant as he shut the door with another reprobate grin on his face.
“Enjoy your first-class accommodations, honey.”
The door slammed with a raucous thud. Alone again.
A few moments later, the transport lurched forward and Aurora had to shift her weight to avoid falling over. She had to shift it again as the lumbering van turned onto the main road out of Bourbon City. The people on the streets paid the convoy no great amount of thought. It was a sight they’d have probably seen before time after time. Another criminal. Another traitor. Another enemy of the Empire. It didn’t matter. They’d all find themselves under the unforgiving boot of Emperor Darius eventually.
As the kilometers began to add up, Aurora sat sullenly still, staring blankly at the riveted metal floor of the transport van. Of the myriad thoughts running through her head, one was louder and more forceful than all the rest. One thought sent a cold shiver down her spine. It made her feel nauseatingly sick and helpless.
A distant crackle of thunder roused her from her melancholic ruminations. She glanced out of the small, caged window on the back door long enough to see storm clouds gathered in the distance. Every other thought was muffled as she turned her head back down to the floor, every thought except that one. It was still there, louder than before. Devouring and never-ending.
I’m going to die…