“So, are you gonna tell me or not?” Ruben asked, still piloting the helicopter.
“Hold… on…” Aurora answered, in between bites of the ration bars she’d found in the survival bag under her seat, “I haven’t eaten in almost three days now.”
“Doesn’t that stuff taste awful?”
“Yes. But it’s edible, and right now, that’s enough for me.”
After a particularly hefty chomp, she rested the bar on her lap and looked the other way. Pulling her hair up, she tilted her head forward, revealing a black mark tattooed on the nape of her neck. The inky form of an ouroboros, along with the words Imperium Sine Fine, greeted Ruben’s inquisitive gaze.
“This is proof that I’m a member of Vipera Aspis.”
Aurora let out a deep sigh, “Vipera Aspis—basically, the Empire’s secret police.”
Ruben stared at her bewildered for a moment before he burst out in laughter. “You come up with some pretty far-fetched tales.” Ruben took a bite out of his own ration bar. “In the first place, if it even exists, why would they let a kid like you into such an elite faction like that?”
“It’s not my credentials that got me in,” Aurora stated with a straight face. “It’s exactly because I’m a kid that I got in.”
Ruben shot her a questioning look.
“The younger they can get them, the easier it is to indoctrinate them to be compulsively loyal to the Empire. The young never betray the ones that… raised them.”
“… And yet, here you are, betraying your homeland.”
Aurora smiled scathingly. “If there’s anything that’s stuck with me from the Empire’s education, it’s that my life is next to worthless. I grew up taking risk after risk. This is just another gamble. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. My hedonistic intuition just told me to snag this helicopter, so that’s what I did.”
Ruben glanced over at Aurora disapprovingly. “I think you’re overlooking a very significant component of your intuition.”
Aurora rolled her eyes, unimpressed. “Well, you played a part, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. If anything, you should be thankful that I deigned to bring you along.”
Ruben let go of the controls and crossed his arms in front of him. “I suppose you wanna fly this thing now?”
“How hard can it be?”
Ruben glared at Aurora in silence, then he smiled and let out a contented sigh. “You really are Jarrod’s daughter.”
“Jarrod… my brother, and apparently, your father.”
“Now who’s the one that’s spinning tales?” Aurora chuckled.
Ruben stared distantly out of the front of the helicopter. “No… Darius and the Empire may lie about many things, but I can see it. You are his daughter.”
“I… find that difficult to believe. Everything I’ve ever known is in the Empire.”
“Who raised you, then?”
“The head of the Empire’s military?”
“He wasn’t when I was young. He lead the military academy at the Shield back then. But he’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father. He was a cold-hearted monster sometimes, but he taught me what I needed to know… and then some.” Aurora stopped herself, turning back to Ruben. “By the way, how do you know so much about the inner workings of the Empire’s government?”
“You could call it… family ties.”
“Your mother used to live in the Empire, at least around the time you were born.”
Aurora raised her eyebrows, intrigued, but not entirely convinced of the truth in his words. “I’m listening.”
“Well, your father and mother worked at a research university in the Mausolea of Petra, a place now most eloquently referred to as the ‘Quarantine Zone’—though, that sounds way too ominous for my tastes.”
“So they were both scientists?”
Ruben hesitated, “Uhh… I guess you could say that.”
“Honestly, everything he ever talked about sounded way over my head. I was never any good with science… stuff. All I know is that he and your mother were researching something to do with physics… or something.”
“Anyway, your glorious leader Darius, he became Jarrod’s apprentice during his research. This was obviously before he took over the Empire, but looking at how he’s ruling Nyhrin now, it seems he hasn’t changed much in all these years. He’s still just as much of a charlatan as he ever was. The only difference is that now he’s become a charlatan with an oversized ego. Back then though, his brother was in charge… great times… well, better than now at least.”
“One day, Jarrod gets in touch with me, all excited, telling me he and Darius the wundersleeze had made a discovery that would change the ‘destiny of humanity’, or something like that. He asked me to come to the university in Petra, where he was gonna share his discovery, so I did.”
“I spent nearly a week with my brother, his wife, and Darius before the unveiling of this discovery. Now, there was a week I could have really done without. I never really liked Darius—or anyone in the Nyhrin family, honestly—but after being forced to spend more time than I had bargained for with him, I came to the definite conclusion that I’d never be able to trust him. I tried desperately to convince Jarrod of this, but Darius has an uncanny ability to get inside people’s heads. It’s… annoying.”
“Putting aside Darius’ insidious personality, the true tragedy in your father’s life was the community’s reaction after the publication of his thesis. The bigwigs were… less than civil in bidding for ownership rights. Let’s just say that once the dust had settled, the Mausolea of Petra had lost its land, population, and autonomy as an independent nation.”
“It also became quite irradiated when…” Ruben turned to face Aurora. “You’re being very quiet.”
“Oh, I’m just trying to figure out my part in this fascinating tale, that’s all.”
“Your mother was pregnant with you while all this was going on.”
“Ahh, I see.” Aurora chirped, almost sarcastically. “And how does that get me born in the Empire?”
“I was getting to that.”
“Well, by all means, continue.”
“You are a demanding one, you know.”
Aurora grinned gleefully, quite pleased with herself.
“Anyway, somewhere in the confusion, Jarrod went missing. Darius offered to give your mother and I sanctuary within the Empire. He practically begged us to go with him, actually. Your mother accepted his generous offer. I, on the other hand, outright refused to be dragged to the Empire with that man. So, I decided to go to Nova Roma. And that’s where I’ve been ever since, living life as best I can, trying to stay out of the way, trying to go unnoticed.” Ruben looked around the helicopter. “Guess I didn’t do so good at that last part, huh?”
Aurora stared out of the side window at a cloudy sky. “What about Jarrod?”
Ruben let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know… at least, not for certain. I’ve been quietly trying to answer that question for a long time though. He could have died in the attack, but I doubt it. All the evidence I’ve found tells me he’s still out there, somewhere. If I could just get back to the university in the Quarantine Zone, maybe I could find something more substantial… more definitive.”
“Did the Wrigleyville warden give you any clues?”
“Don’t give me that. You’re telling me you didn’t get caught on purpose?”
“Ah, so it was just a coincidence you were caught by the same nation where your sister-in-law fled, even though your connections make you wanted internationally?”
“It was… convenient that I got imprisoned?”
Aurora looked at him wearily. “Words are cheap. I would know. You’ll have to weave a thicker yarn if you expect me to take you seriously.”
Ruben heaved another sigh. “I’m not really trying to convince anyone. If you don’t believe me, that’s your prerogative, I guess.”
The sun’s rays filtering in through the reinforced glass started to redden, warning the approach of nightfall. “It’ll be dark soon. Find somewhere to land,” Aurora urged.
“Yes, sir,” Ruben responded facetiously, lowering the aircraft into the vast expanse of grassland. Flipping switches, the engine died down and the rotors slowed to a stop. “What are your orders now, brave pathfinder?”
She tossed a thin blanket from her survival bag at Ruben. “Go to sleep. We have a long day ahead of us once the sun returns.”
Ruben covered himself in the blanket and turned to the side. “As you wish,” he consented with an inauthentically groggy inflection. Crossing her arms, Aurora leaned back in her chair and fell asleep herself.
Δ Δ Δ
Aurora’s eyes shot open in the dead of night like clockwork. Looking over to her left, she observed Ruben’s barely visible chest slowly rising and falling, matching his breathing. He was deep asleep.
Silently opening the passenger door, she slunk out of the helicopter. Walking some distance, she crouched down to hide her silhouette in the vegetation. Pressing a finger to her throat, she activated the microchip implanted in her trachea and whispered, “It’s Aurora. Checkpoint: reached. Target: intact. Complications: zero.”