Chapter 2: Release Paradigm

The transport van lumbered over another pothole as it neared the capital. The sun’s low rays crept through the small, caged window, nearly blinding Aurora as she stared lifelessly ahead.

The roads were busy as dusk was fast approaching. The bureaucrats, soldiers, and others lucky enough to be counted among the imperial elite were all headed to their Empire-designated houses clustered on the outskirts of town for the night. Surely the sight of such a convoy would go just as unnoticed here as it had in Bourbon City. Not that Aurora was holding out hope for an acquittal or anything, regardless of the factuality of her charges. She couldn’t expect any sort of reprieve. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Aurora had heard story after horrific story about the kind of people who got sent to Wrigley: alleged rapists, murderers, and traitors. Anyone who didn’t fit in with Darius’ idea of a perfect system was fair game. Though, “fair” is a loaded term when just about any crime could be punished by life imprisonment; and when prosecutors collaborated with judges to invent their own arbitrary standards of proof. Whether these stories were true, or just ways to frighten little children into obedience, Aurora was about to find out.

“There it is,” she heard the driver of the van say from up front.

Aurora turned her head to see an ostentatious sign above the highway adorned with the four words she’d been dreading: WELCOME TO NEW CHICAGO. A shiver ran down her spine: a foreboding telltale that the metropolis would not be as welcoming as the sign promised. Driving deeper into the city, the residential houses that had been splattered across the skyline were replaced by smoky factories, bleeding-edge skyscrapers, and various other multi-tiered complexes. New Chicago, the industrial core that breathed life into the Empire’s administration, was just as intimidating as Aurora had heard.

With a sharp left, the van turned into what seemed to be the city’s military district. The lot was populated with marbled executive buildings, concrete bunkers, tarmac runways, black-windowed munitions houses, wooden barracks, and muddy expanses presumably intended for infantry drills. Ignoring all of these establishments, the convoy took another left, heading for the steel confines of Wrigleyville, a former sporting venue that the Empire had appropriated as a maximum security prison.

The van screeched to a halt, and her rifle-toting detail unloaded from the front seats, walked around the stopped vehicle, and threw the back doors open.

“Out!” shouted the neatly uniformed driver as he pointed his sidearm at Aurora. Still handcuffed, she kindly did as she was told. Stepping out of the van, she was approached by a group of three people dressed in all white medical scrubs.

“She’s all yours, doctor,” the driver said as he handed Aurora over to them laughing, “be gentle.”

The doctor that stepped forward looked unamused. She was young for her profession, maybe around 25 years old, but she had a very calm demeanor.

“Come girl, walk straight,” she instructed Aurora with a side glance. “Cooperate and I won’t have to use the hard drugs. They’re too expensive to waste on an expendable like you.” At a brisk pace, the doctor escorted Aurora to the main doors of the prison. Extending her hand, she pressed her thumb against the access pad. The clunking of heavy metal bolts retracting filled the eerily quiet twilight air, proceeded by the steel-reinforced doors popping open.

Her two associates held them ajar, and the doctor strode through the unimpeded entryway with Aurora in tow. A delta of gray concrete halls lay before them, each sparsely lit by a series of bare incandescent light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Without much hesitation, the doctor continued forward. “I don’t have all day to waste on you, so quit dawdling around,” she remarked sharply. In sync with the doctor’s directions, her associates pushed Aurora roughly from behind.

After a few dozen meters, they arrived at a door with a sign above it that read “Medical Ward.” The doctor opened the door and pulled Aurora inside with the associates following close behind. As the door closed, the doctor turned to face Aurora.

“You must be tired of those handcuffs by now,” she noted, and with a snap of her fingers, the two associates removed them. Aurora rubbed her wrist and looked back at the doctor.

“Thanks… I guess,” Aurora said, half-surprised by this act of charity.

“Sure,” the doctor replied as she gestured over to a nearby bed, “now come, sit here.”

She complied and hopped up onto the bed. One of the associates grabbed Aurora’s upper arm and fettered it tightly with a tourniquet. The other associate dipped a cotton ball in rubbing alcohol and dabbed Aurora’s forearm.

“Don’t fret too much. I’m just going to be taking a blood sample. Standard procedure,” the doctor informed Aurora as she flicked the tip of the empty syringe in her hand. With a swift jab, the doctor pierced Aurora’s skin. There was a tingling sting at the site of penetration, and after a dozen seconds, the doctor withdrew the instrument now full with Aurora’s crimson fluid.

The associate taped a clean cotton ball onto the puncture wound. “We’ll run some more tests so just lay down, if you would,” the doctor instructed. Aurora mumbled a confirmation and swung her legs onto the bed.

The associate pulled Aurora’s shirt to up to her chest, and started rubbing a cool jelly on her stomach. Flinching, Aurora curled her hand into a fist.

“While it sits, go calibrate the ultrasound machine,” the doctor ordered.

“Yes, doctor.”

Out of the corner of Aurora’s eye, she could see the doctor inputting data into a machine, and she could hear the buttons of the interface click clacking away.

Click clack. Click clack. Click clack. Clackackkkclickiiiiiick.

The sounds got jumbled. Her vision blurred. She could hear in the distance the voice of the doctor as if she was talking through a mobile phone with poor reception.

“That adhesive tape should be enough to knock her out for a long while…” was the last thing Aurora was able to make out as she lost consciousness.

Δ Δ Δ

“Well, well…” began a gruff voice as Aurora’s eyes shot open, “what do we have here?” She shielded her face as her pupils adjusted to the bright light of the sterile cell she found herself in, but despite the glare, she could still make out the figure of the man standing above her. He was tall, yet meager in build, with golden blonde hair and sad, gray eyes that seemed to rend through everything.

“W-what?” Aurora replied, still a bit woozy from whatever it was that had knocked her out. She sat up and looked around, collecting herself. She was in a small cell with white walls and a transparent door, quite different than the cell she’d woken up in back in Bourbon City. She looked down and realized that someone had changed her clothes into a plain, white jumpsuit that was clean and free of blood. A quick glance at the mirror on the wall nearby, and she realized that her injuries had been tended to as well.

“Confused?” the lanky man asked.

“A little,” answered Aurora, “where am I?”

“Wrigleyville Imperial Prison, in solitary confinement. I’m Zephram Novac, the warden here. Can you stand on your own? I need you to come with me and answer a few questions.”

“I think so.”

As Aurora stood up she felt a sharp twinge in her stomach, nearly falling over attempting to right herself. She was hungry, famished in fact.

“How long have I been in this cell?”

“About three days.”

“Three days? Explains why I’m so hungry, I guess.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you some food after we finish with our questions. Follow me.”

Novac turned his back on Aurora and leaned against the glass door. Suddenly, electronic blue light coarsed through the glass and hovered around the spot where the warden was resting his hand. After a few seconds, the jittering blue light converted along a gradient to a radioactive green. A soft, artificial tone played, and the green light dispersed only to reform into the words: ACCESS GRANTED, causing the glass pane to slide open.

Further disoriented by the abrupt light show, Aurora dragged her half-numb legs to follow behind the warden’s tepid footsteps. He lead her down a long winding corridor at a whimsically monotonous pace. There were no doors and there were no windows. It was only the slight swaying of the bare bulbs on the ceiling that differentiated one segment of the hallway from the next, if separating it into segments was even possible to begin with.

Out of nowhere and for seemingly no reason, the warden stopped. Turning, he caressed a patch of the wall, no more or less distinct from anywhere else in the featureless prison. In response to Novac’s touch, the spot where he touched fizzled, the concrete becoming electronic static. The gray of the area faded into another transparent door. Through the fuzz of its signature light show, Aurora could just make out what seemed to be a bearded man slouching on a chair on the other side.

The glass slid open, and Novac ushered her into a square room. Crossing the threshold, Aurora’s visual faculties were assaulted by the hypnotizing image of her reflection looping within itself infinitely; the four walls of the room were mirrors.

The transparent door slid shut softly behind her, morphing into a mirror as soon as it was firmly closed, completely indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. Reclining in a cushioned swivel chair propped on one end of the room, Novac motioned for Aurora to sit across the table from him, alongside the bearded man Aurora had caught a glimpse of earlier.

The man looked up at Aurora as she sat down, and she got a good look at his face. He had several bruises along his jaw, and his sullen viridian eyes gave off a look of defeat. This obviously wasn’t his first round in this room.

“Do you know this man, Aurora?” Novac asked.

She looked back at the bearded man next to her, “No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this man before in my life.”

Novac’s expression that had been distant up until now became coarse, and he began impatiently tapping his armrest. “Let’s be frank here, Miss Serafin.” Novac cleared his throat and adjusted his necktie. “You adore our exalted emperor, Darius Nyhrin, as the one and only guiding beacon for your hopelessly insignificant existence, correct?”

“Of course!” Aurora stuttered, caught off guard by how blunt his question was.

“And you would never do anything that would be even vaguely misconstrued as betraying his mellifluousness, would you?”

“What? No, of course not.”

“Miss Serafin, you’re a woman with a number of nasty habits, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“One lie just leads to another with you, doesn’t it, Miss Serafin? Your ilk is truly despicable. Have you no shame? His polyphony was benevolent enough to make a place for you in his auspicious kingdom, and this is how you repay him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Aurora recoiled, bewildered at his accusations.

“Which nation have you been providing our information to?”

“What information?” she responded, becoming distraught at the escalating situation.

“Who are your compatriots within the Empire? Give me names, and I’ll stay your execution for that many days.”

“I don’t have compatriots! I’m loyal to the Empire!”

“Really? Loyal? That’s funny, considering the man sitting next to you is not only a terrorist against the empire, but he is also your uncle.”

Aurora looked at the bearded man and back to Novac, not sure whether to believe what she just heard or not. “What?” was the only word she could manage.

“His name is Ruben Serafin. We came across him seeking shelter in Nova Roma, but so far he has proved most uncooperative. When we ran his blood samples through our database, we were surprised to find a familial match here in the Empire.” Novac leaned in closer to Aurora dauntingly, “I’ll politely give you my request one last time. Tell me what you know.”

“Nothing. I didn’t even know this man existed before I walked in this room. I’ve never met anyone in my family before. I don’t even know my parents’ names, let alone anything about this man.”

Novac was unconvinced, “Florina was right about you. The hard way it is, I guess.”

He got up out of his chair and straightened his necktie. With a sick half-grin, Novac informed her, “You see, my dear. I’m a man of pedigreea foreign concept to you, I’m sure. Our conversation has made it crystal clear to me that only a brute can get information out of a brute. I should have left you to your own kind to begin with.”

Conjuring a door from the wall with a tap of his finger, he turned back to face Aurora. “They’ll be here soon. Don’t miss me too much.” And with that, he was gone.

The hiss of the mirror reforming dissipated into a long, stiff silence.

“So… uncle, huh?” Aurora questioned.

“Guess so… niece,” Ruben retorted.

“Good to know.”

“Yeah.”

Another long silence followed before Aurora spoke up again.

“I have a question.”

“What is it?”

“Do you know how to fly a helicopter?”

Ruben hesitated, unprepared for the question he’d been asked. “What?”

“Yes or no, can you fly a helicopter?”

“Well, yeah, but I haven’t flown one in years.”

“It’s like riding a bike, isn’t it?”

“Not quite. But, what does that matter anyway?”

Aurora rolled her eyes at Ruben, “Get up, we’re leaving.”

She grabbed Ruben by the arm and pulled him out of the chair, only for him to collapse on the floor in front of her. Abandoning the haggard man, she walked over to the mirrored wall where Novac had exited.

Ruben rolled a bit on the floor, feebly coughing up a strand of blood. “Have you been incarcerated so long that you’ve lost your mind?” he asked sardonically in a wavering voice. “This is the infamous Wrigleyville. No one ever leaves.”

Ignoring the bearded man’s rambling, Aurora placed her hand against the wall, and almost instantly the blue tinge of light appeared around her hand, turning green to spell out: ACCESS GRANTED.

“Don’t make me ask you to get up again,” Aurora threatened as she strode through the newly formed exit.

Scrambling to get on his feet, Ruben did as he was told this time. He stuck behind Aurora as she made her way through the cemented hall she’d been previously escorted through.

“Who are you?” Ruben asked her, confused and suspicious.

“Later, not while we’re being monitored,” Aurora answered, ducking around a corner.

“Wait. How do I know you’re not taking me somewhere worse than here?” he asked exasperated.

“I guess that’s a gamble you’ll just have to take,” she replied intimidatingly.

“Well, when you put it like that…”

Aurora abruptly turned to a spot in the corridor and unlocked it with another flash of light, giving them access to a stairwell leading down. Once on the ground floor, it was only a few more meters between them and the outside world. There was a bulky metal door at the exit, which Aurora stopped at before proceeding.

“Stay here, I’ll be right back,” Aurora ordered.

“Do I have a choice?” Ruben responded sarcastically.

“No.”

Aurora pressed her hand against the access pad, and the door instantly unlocked. She slipped outside, leaving Ruben alone, trying to hear what was happening on Aurora’s end.

“Hey! Who the hell are yo—” he heard a deep voice yell. What sounded like a physical struggle ensued for a brief moment, followed by some indistinct rustling.

The door reopened. Aurora, decked in a baggy Nyhrin law enforcement uniform, motioned for Ruben to follow her. He stepped over the naked body at Aurora’s feet, and proceeded forward as Aurora signaled him to do so.

“Not that I’m criticizing, but you should probably see a tailor about that uniform,” Ruben regaled facetiously.

Aurora rolled her eyes as she reached into the pockets of the uniform and pulled the standard-issue tag. There was a zipping noise as the Nyhrin uniforms’ automatic resizing mechanism allowed Aurora’s poached clothes to be repurposed to fit her.

“Better?” Aurora asked.

“Yes,” Ruben answered, nodding his head, “your tailor does nice work.”

“Good, now hold still,” she insisted.

He felt cold metal on his right wrist as Aurora snapped on a handcuff she’d—presumably—confiscated from the stripped guard behind them. Pulling his hands behind him, she secured the handcuff over his left wrist as well.

“Fuck! I knew I couldn’t trust you, bitch!”

“Don’t make me inflict more pain than necessary, old man. C’mon, walk,” she ordered as she rattled the holstered sidearm she’d—apparently—also appropriated from the guard.

Walking around the corner of the building, she waved down another guard who was posted at a different exit.

“I don’t recognize you. Show me your identification,” the guard demanded tensely, visibly suspicious of the ragtag duo.

Reaching into the breast pocket of her uniform, Aurora produced a card-shaped panel of glass. Blue light reverberated along the surface of the card. She held it up in front of the guard as the light transmuted into green letters reading: IDENTITY VERIFIED.

“Unit… classified? Clearance level: Richter?! Y-your orders, sir?” he asked, surprised and somewhat flustered.

“I hereby supersede all other standing orders. I’m escorting this prisoner to a more secure location. Take me to the airfield.”

“Yes, sir!”

He lead them to his pickup truck parked nearby. Aurora cajoled Ruben into the back of the truck while the guard started the ignition with a tap of his finger. The engine purred, and the guard merged onto the main street of the district. After a couple of minutes, they reached the airfield access checkpoint. The guard gave his ID, unlocking the barricade, and they proceeded into the grounds.

“Take us to one of the Chime SB-761 Banshees,” Aurora instructed, seemingly familiar with the standard weaponry supplied to the Nyhrin military. Zigzagging through various grounded aircraft, the guard brought the truck to a stop next to the helicopter Aurora had requested.

“Thank you,” Aurora said to the guard, as she pulled out the confiscated pistol, placed the barrel against his head, and pulled the trigger. The sound was slightly muffled, as the bullet shot through his skull, leaving a clean hole where it had passed. A trickle of crimson flowed from the wound as he slouched over in his seat.

Ruben, dazed by what he’d just witnessed, stared blankly at Aurora for several seconds until he finally found the wherewithal to speak. “What the hell are you doing!?”

“Come on,” Aurora said, exiting the truck, grabbing Ruben by the arm again. Aurora took out the stolen ID card with her free hand and shattered it on the tarmac as they entered the helicopter’s cockpit.

“Get us off the ground,” Aurora commanded.

Ruben tentatively reached for the controls, his fingers trembling, unsure of what mess this demon would be dragging him into.

As if she had read his mind, she reassured him, “No need to think so hard. You’ve only got two choices. Fly this helicopter and get the sweet release of escape, or waste another of my bullets and savor the sweet release of death. Which would you prefer?”

“Well then,” Ruben responded bitterly, flicking one of the controls, “takeoff procedures started.” The helicopter whirred to life and the interior displays lit up. Ruben and Aurora slipped on the headsets hanging next to their seats.

“Can you hear me?” Ruben asked over the comms.

Aurora gave a thumbs up in reply.

“Good. Now, I have a question.”

“What’s that?”

“Where are we going?”

“Head west, for now.”

“Okay… west it is.”

Ruben paused for a moment, recalling what to do next.

“You did say you knew how to fly one of these things, right?”

“Just give me a moment, it’s been a while…”

Ruben eventually plugged a westwardly heading into the helicopter’s GPS, and a few seconds later the craft lifted off the tarmac. Once the Banshee gained enough altitude, Ruben pitched the nose forward and turned to face west. Accelerating forward, the pair left the prison, and the city of New Chicago, behind. They were free, at least for the moment. That was enough to keep the silence for a time, until Ruben’s curiosity finally overpowered his fear.

“So, you want to tell me who you are now?” he asked cautiously.

Aurora gave him a jaded glance, almost annoyed by the question.

“Well, it’s a long story,” she finally responded with a sigh, “but we appear to have plenty of time.”

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