By Evan O’Grady
“An empire, Ní Aicil! We were on the cusp of an empire!”
Breandan was deep in his cups at this point. The dimly lit Hall of Blasta pub sported many old soldiers, but Breandan was trying for being the loudest of them all. He had had a particularly dull day and was aching for a fight to liven it up.
He worked for the coast guard, but was stationed in the eastern sea, which was far quieter in the past decade now The Neighbours had been evacuated. Not even the pirates bothered travelling near the wastes: where a civilisation bled and died on the day it picked the wrong fight. Aye, some returned to the mass of sludge left over now and again, but they always came back quickly or not at all. In the years before, The Dé Danann party once had turned the country into a powerhouse like never before. Bolstered by a refugee population willing to work for a home to stay in, the country boomed with new industry. The invention of Caladbolg, a new compound that brought about the Revolution of Light, solidified the country, now called Bethú, as a leader of the future. That was, until it threw away any goodwill it had once fostered.
Aithne, Breandan’s drinking mate on this occasion, owed her family name to Caladbolg, and owed its disgrace to it too. She was too far from the upper echelons of the dynasty to see much of its riches, but was still wary of anyone picking for a fight with her. Grown fat from military monopolising abroad, the Aicil family sowed discord and disparity throughout the world. Had the colonies not embargoed all space travel they would have sent some to the moon if they could. Aithne’s distant cousin Allena was famed for her travels abroad to war zones; bringing food and aid to one side while arming the hungry ones on the other. They would watch from afar as the two tore each other apart. When a journalist confronted her about her “deliveries” in foreign relations, she laughed and said it was all good fun, before shooting him on camera in broad daylight. No one could touch the journalist’s body as, likewise, no one could touch Allena. But she was merely a symptom of the family’s grip rather than a cause. She was the eldest daughter of the Aicil patriarch, Bracken and his wife Cualing. Cualing had been at the forefront of Caladbolg development, and using her husband’s connections abroad monopolised its distribution and use. Together they helped found De Danann, a politic based research foundation that soon became Bethú. Cualing and Bracken together brewed a philosophy of dedicated misanthropy that none could replicate. They believed in the most dangerous forms of history worship: That conquest was something to be revered and revived again and again. That they and they alone should hold the torch of bringing the world to its knees under the rule of a singular family, an ideology of supremacy in the few. Whether they were correct or not is hard to say, for in the space of thirty years, they had skipped from modest riches to great conquest and eventually self-immolation. Caladbolg was their legacy, but it was others far more lowly than them who would wrest it from Aicil control.
Aithne was ready to give Breandan and her ear drums a break and went out for a cigarette. She blew smoke into the chill February air. Huddling to her patchy jacket, she looked around at the sullen faces wandering the streets. Some Vets here and there, some still with their Caladbolg-made prosthetics. They had become obsolete when the mechanical Fethem became active resorting to wandering the streets looking for something to do, often failing. Some teens ran between the shuffling adults, playing, carefree in the cold. Aithne smiled behind her flickering Lucifer; even in doggishly bad times life did go on now and again. She forgot that often when she surrounded herself with the disheartened and the dispossessed. She sometimes wished she were more selfish like her brothers, who had fled south when the Aicils lost their last Bastion in the old Pale Quarter. That being said she didn’t have to live in fear like them. No Aicil would dare stay among the lowly in an old shredded jacket and jeans. It would take gumption for them to do that, which the last dregs of her family lacked. So she hid here in plain sight, helping out where she could, spending her days smoking and scrounging in the Friary shelters. The brothers and sisters seemed to be the last ones left of the Danann days. A relatively new sect of the Church of the Revolution, they were not mired in politics as their parent sect had been. They took in Vets and redundants to help them ease into a life of inertia. Now that the Fethem did all the work and all the fighting, everyone else had lost their vim, not to mention their trade value. Vets often joined the Friary since they helped maintain prostheses. The Vets in turn became bouncers and peacekeepers in this sub-society, watching over the other pilgrims who took to the shelters. The redundants kept the day-to-day running and maintenance up in exchange for materials and a safe place to stay. It used to be that they had the lower cities all to themselves. When the wars ended everyone sort of trickled down here. Space was sparse but no one could complain. It was nice enough just to be near someone else in the cold nights again.
Aithne, under advice from the Friary, had joined the coast guard alongside Breandan. It was one of the few jobs left since Caladbolg did not react well with whatever was left of the Eastern Sea and the Fethem avoided it. It was often left to the people to keep an eye out for illicit imports and exports. Bethú was notoriously difficult to cultivate in during Winter, so the Black Market was rampantly popular. Anyone who got hands on this illicit product often ended up sick or dead so it was the coast guard’s job to curb the practice. Aithne didn’t see much action in her south-east turf. It was often the western and northern coast guards who had to deal with the worst sorts of pirate, smuggler and general no-goods. Many still no worse than her family had been. The less she knew about her hideous background the better she felt. Her own parents were assassinated in her infancy and from what she heard they were no saints either. She was raised by her elder brothers and sister. Delinquents and agitators they may have been at the time, they nevertheless watched out for their little sister as best they could have given the circumstances. Much of Aithne’s youth was in the company of a band of revolutionaries; a youth movement trying to regain control of Caladbolg from whoever the Fethem followed. Her sister remained with her until the two had a falling out some years prior. She hadn’t seen Sáile since and worried at times as to what happened to her.
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by a Fethem blaring up the street. A flying drone that was pursuing someone on a street buggy: a fast street buggy at that. People threw themselves out-of-the-way of the two as they burst through the crowd in fevered chase. Aithne stared for a split second before throwing down her cigarette and running back into the Hall. Breandan was in mid battle with three other patrons. A red-faced woman was holding him by his arms while her buddy was winding up for a punch. Aithne screamed, “BREANDAN, CHASER AND WHEELS, OUTSIDE NOW!” before rushing back out to her own patrol bike. The ones accosting Breandan punched him once for good measure before rushing out themselves, with him not far behind. All grabbed whatever means of transport they could and screeched after in pursuit.
Aithne was ahead and a retinue of followers gradually filtered through the alleys to join her. The two ahead were fast; weaving in and out of streets and crowds with breakneck agility. The drone’s sirens deafened any human around and had Aithne not put on her helmet and earplugs she would have given up the chase already. The buggy and drone were mere blurs now, not slowing for anyone or anything. A few people got hit hard and were plastered over the surrounding pavement. It was in everyone’s interest that either the human or machine just went down now. Any coast guard nearby were probably now joining the chase or at least cornering off the larger streets until the chaos subsided. A few blasts of energy ahead signalled that someone in the buggy had firearms that didn’t belong to them. If the drone began to retaliate then buildings would be levelled. The red-faced woman and her friend managed to catch up with Aithne. She signalled left and right to them and they nodded in agreement before pulling off. Aithne slowed ever slightly and Breandan caught up at last. She held up two fingers and pointed to eleven and one o’ clock. Breandan clenched his fist, nodded and dropped back before disappearing into a side alley. Aithne kept her eyes on the two ahead and shot a signal flare to six o’ clock. Any bystander who saw it saw it would follow it and hopefully stay well away from the chase. They approached the dormitory district, everyone having to slow down to accommodate for more uneven terrain and narrow corridors. The drone’s maps were sketchy of this area since it changed almost daily, so it had to improvise as a person would. They were coming up to the pincer point and no doubt the drone was wary enough to slow down and allow its quarry gain some ground. The litter surrounding it composed mainly of junked Caladbolg parts and the drone did not want to be a part of this landscape . Its luck turned when the buggy burst a brake slider and collided into a wall. Aithne fired a signal straight up and Breandan came down hard on the drone’s hull with a lance. It was Breandan’s prize possession and it penetrated beautifully, punching straight through the hull and lobotomising the drone in one shot. He looked like he took the fall hard though. The drone crashed down and brought Breandan with it.
The red-faced woman and her partner slid up beside the buggy while Aithne saw to her buddy. Breandan had a deep gash in the side of his head, his leg was twisted and his eyes unfocussed. Overconfidence had done a number on his body once more it seemed. Aithne slapped a first aid patch on his head and left him to rest where he sat. She walked past the brain dead drone and up toward the two raiders. The woman tore off a panel and her buddy kicked something inside hard before they pulled the driver out. Aithne could make out a torso and one arm. Probably used prosthetics until the crash mangled them. He seemed to be conscious at least.
“C’mere ya little shite ya! Tearing ‘round like you run the place. Cut of ya!” The red-faced woman rifled through the driver’s jacket while she berated him. She pulled out the pistols he had concealed within while her companion took any inside the buggy.
“Ruadha, seven shotties, and two rifles. He’s a load of ‘em here!”
“Little thief was it?! Shaking up the boys above and bringing their like down here to annoy us is it?!” The driver wasn’t quite conscious enough to respond, and his mouth was agape and drooling slightly. “Anything we can keep Eoin?”
“Naw girl, it’s all tagged, they’ll be on it within the hour.”
The woman tutted and slung her captor over Eoin’s shoulder while she grumbled to herself. Aithne, who was near and watched the whole exchange, offered a Lucifer. The woman waved the offer away and instead offered Aithne a swig of liquor from her flask. Aithne took out her travel mug and accepted graciously. Sipping the strong whiskey first, then gulping it down, she introduced herself and Breandan. She even dropped in her O’ Aicil moniker but it didn’t seem to raise the flag. She always felt nervous about it but felt it was more appropriate to be less cagey in the long run. Hiding in plain sight… Ruadha and Eoin were two scavenging types from the Southwest. They had come to the centre looking for business and found none. The only booming business left was the bar brawling kind and that had lost its shine too. The four of them limped away from the crash, grabbed Breandan and a few parts from the buggy. The drone had already been cannibalised, its tracker beacons left behind for its friends to find. The stragglers hadn’t been quite careful enough, as the Fethem would probably try to get the parts back by force. Aithne dreamed of the power one would feel if they could keep the weapons stolen from the higher-ups, but alas it was never worth the risk. The four pursuers plus the catatonic Buggy man returned to the Hall of Blasta and whiled away the hours, talking of better times before they were robbed of their lives.