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Under The Rocket Tree

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Chiaki lets a deep breath flow in and out of his chest as the hover-cruiser zips its way through the commuter tunnels to the heart of the Gold Tier skyscraper district in Haku Ward. The achingly long moments before a police raid begins are always the worst.

He looks over at Ando, who gives him a tight-lipped smile. They're all feeling the tension of anticipation. At least he can take some comfort in having his best friend right there with him.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

The ready signal sounds in their helmets. Chiaki's hands tighten around his weapons as he braces himself for impact.

***

Chiaki has spent his life hearing that Haven is the only safe place left on earth. That it's only thanks to its protective dome and sturdy underground tunnels that humanity managed to survive the great apocalypse at all, with the surface world being an inhospitable wasteland full of atomic fallout and the mutants left over from the genetic plague. That there's no reason to ever go up there, when Haven's council provides everything the people could ever need.

Chiaki's life down in the Bronze Tier is fine, but cramped. There's barely any space that far below the surface, with huge masses of humanity stacked on top of each other. He and Ando have a snug little place paid for with their police salaries, but it's still tight

Sometimes at night when they've finished their patrol work and before they find a cheap ramen place for dinner they stop at one of the parks in the upper levels and stare up towards the glass ceiling of the dome. Sometimes Chiaki swears he can even see stars beyond the artificial light of the high-rises.

He couldn't possibly, of course. The upper dome is reinforced with triple-thick layers, and the brightness of the artificial lights that keep Haven lit would block out anything coming from the sky above. But more than anything else, he still wishes he could see the wide open sky someday.

***

They hit hard and fast. The hover-cruisers slam through the upper walls of Saint Nova Church's lofty palace, right below its huge neon signs reading GOD IS WATCHING YOU. The cultists are prepared. The world breaks into a flurry of guns and bullets as police and cultists alike aim to kill.

Chiaki and Ando dodge the gunfire and head for a stairwell. Their recon intelligence had said that the majority of cultists had their sleeping quarters two floors below. The goal is to take a few into custody, find out where their Nova, their leader is, and stop him before he strikes again. That sarin gas attack in the Silver Tier marketplace... All those people... It can't happen again.

They run down the stairs at a blistering pace, the HUD displays in their helmets marking off their decent until the reach the right level. They burst through the door of the residential floor--

And immediately recoil. It's a mess. Bodies are piled up everywhere. All of the cultists lie where they fell, half-drunk cups of dark liquid in their hands.

"Are... Are they all dead?" Ando asks. He reaches down to grab the wrist of a nearby body and swears. "They are. All of them."

"How did they know?" Chiaki asks "How did they know we were coming?"

A muffled noise breaks the silence. Both of them freeze. There's a door to a supply closet off to the side of the room, with sounds coming from it. The two carefully step over the mess of bodies littering the floor to push it open.

There's a girl in the back of the supply room, shoved between stacks of boxes. A girl with wings. She sits upright, facing the door they enter from, and her eyes widen in panic as Chiaki and Ando step into the room. She tries to push herself further away from the intruders but she's kept in place by a heavy chain that links a collar around her neck to a ring soldered to the floor.

Chiaki pulls off his helmet, drops into a crouch and approaches her slowly. "Are you all right, miss?" he asks. "Were they imprisoning you here?"

The girl’s eyes dart between him and Ando. Her breathing is shallow and panicked. "You're not... You're not Nova's men, are you?" she asks with a voice rough with disuse. "He didn't send you here for me, did he?"

"Haven Metropolitan Police. We were here as part of a raid, but--" He thinks about the room behind them. "--it seems like they knew we were coming."

The girl visibly relaxes a bit, although she keeps her distance. "Oh, you're with them. Of course you would be. Last time, we didn't..." She takes a breath to steady herself. "Nova's gone. He knew you'd be coming. He told his followers to drink poison so that they wouldn't fall into the hands of the wicked." She lets out a derisive snort. "But he wouldn't let his golden goose drink too."

Chiaki's finally close enough that he could reach out and touch the girl if he wanted to. "What's your name?" he asks.

She seems surprised. "My...? I'm... Hope. Hope Verdandi."

Chiaki motions for Ando to hand over the service knife he keeps in his jacket, and his partner does. He carefully shows the knife to Hope.

"My name's Chiaki. This is my partner, Ando. May I cut that collar off you?" he asks.

Hope hesitates, but then seems to decide to trust him. "Okay," she finally says.

Chiaki closes the rest of the distance between them, unsheathes the blade, and carefully cuts the leather strap. Hope raises a hand to her neck to feel the bare skin underneath.

"Can you walk?" Ando asks.

Hope tries to unsteadily get to her feet, but her legs are weak and she falls. Chiaki catches her before she hits the floor, and scoops her up in his arms.

"We'll get you out of here," he says. "Somewhere safe. You're going to be okay."

Ando holds the door open for them to leave the room. "You should close your eyes," he says. "It's not pretty out here."

Hope leans into Chiaki's chest to avert her gaze from the room around him. She's so small, he thinks. She must be a teenager, but she's so frail that she barely weighs anything. Her wings are gentle to the touch. He wonders if perhaps she's one of those gen-mutants surface dwellers are supposed to be.

"Why were you locked in there?" Ando asks, as he leads a path back to the elevator around the bodies on the floor. "What did they want you for?"

"I'm a Seer," Hope says. "I can see the threads that make up time, and how different choices can lead to different fates." She stretches out hand, and Chiaki can see her eyes take on a violet glow. "And if I pull the threads hard enough, sometimes I can roll back time just enough to change decisions. Never for myself, though. I can only use it to help other people."

She lets her arm drop back against her chest and the glow fades. "I grew up on the surface, on a little farm with my mother. Mama and I used to sneak down here to barter wool and buy supplies. On one of those trips, Nova saw me and recognized what I was. Dragged me here. Made me... Made me change fate for him." She drops her gaze to the floor. "He knew you'd be coming today. Your raid already happened. You did take most of his followers captive. You almost managed to catch him. He made me roll back time so that things would go better for him."

It sounds crazy, Chiaki thinks to himself. No one can control time, let alone a teenage girl. She must have been down here a long time.

They carry her back up the stairs. Ando fishes out a water bottle from a rations pack and she eagerly drinks it up.

"It'll be okay," Ando promises. "From now on, you're going to be safe."

 

******

There's a pair of armoured cars waiting for them on the roof. A dark-haired woman in a well-cut business suit makes a beeline for Chiaki and Ando as they help Hope to stand shakily on the ground near their hover-cruiser.

"Thank you officers," the woman says brusquely. "We'll take it from here."

"And you are?" Ando asks.

The woman pulls an official badge from out of her breast pocket. "Agent Urth, Haven Research Division 4. I have orders from the Chancellor himself to take possession of this girl."

Chiaki's only heard rumours about Research Division 4, none of it good. They conduct high-security projects that none of the three public Research Division units are willing to talk about. His hand tightens around Hope's thin wrist.

"No," Hope whispers. "Don't let them take me. They'll use me. I need to get out of Haven."

Agent Urth puts the badge away and crosses her arms. "I've already spoken with your Captain Matsuzaki and she's agreed to transfer custody of this captive to me. Unless you want to directly contradict your superiors, I suggest you comply."

A couple of larger security officers in hazmat suits move in to take hold of Hope. One of them removes Chiaki's hand from her wrist while the other straps her onto a gurney waiting by the side of the car. Hope's too weak from her captivity to fight off the officers.

"No!" she cries. "Please! Chiaki, Ando, save me!" Her voice is cut off as the two officers wheel her into a car and prepare for takeoff.

Agent Urth smiles. "Thank you, gentlemen. You've provided a great service to your city." She offers her hand for a handshake, and Chiaki grudgingly takes it.

The cuff of her sleeve rides up to reveal a tattoo on her wrist. It's an eye, done in purple ink, with the words Deus Vigilat inked around the edges.

Deus Vigilat. God is Watching.

No, it can't be.

Agent Urth breaks off the handshake and heads to her own cruiser. Chiaki and Ando watch as it takes off, heading off towards the interchange leading to the Piccolo Ward.

"I hope she'll be okay," Ando says.

Chiaki can't get the image of the tattoo out of his mind. "Yeah," he says. "I sure hope so."

******

With the raid over, the police force is let off shift for the rest of the night. Chiaki and Ando stop in for food at an izakaya in Bronze Tier's Pazu Ward, and both get piping hot bowls of noodles and beer. It's all synth stuff -- there's no space in Haven's underground for any kind farming -- but the soup broth makes it taste better.

Chiaki can't get the girl out of his head. The way she survived an apocalyptic cult, that whole "Seer" talk, how panicked she was to be taken into custody. She was probably in good hands now, though. Right?

"We did the right thing, didn't we?" he asks Ando. "She'll probably be okay with the Research Division guys, right?"

"You still thinking about her too?" Ando says. He takes a drag on his cigarette. "I don't know. I've heard things about them through the grapevine. Do you want to--" He stops.

"What?" Chiaki says, pressing him to go on.

"Do you want to go find her? If that woman is connected to the Nova Church..."

Chiaki thinks hard about it. What they're talking about is tantamount to treason against Haven's government. But the girl looked so scared, and that tattoo...

"Yeah," he says. "Let's do it."

 

***

They browse through the few available public records about Research Division 4 on the Haven Official Web Library, but HOWLnet has nothing on an Agent Urth. They are able to find the location of the main lab though, and that might be enough to go by.

They borrow a couple of hazmat suits from Haven Metropolitan Police headquarters, and make the drive over to Research Division 4. It's a tall windowless building, standing imposingly in a mostly residential area of Silver Tier's Lazare Ward, next to a garage full of city construction vehicles. They find the main entrance, and buzz for entry.

A worker in a hazmat suit opens a peephole window. "And who are you supposed to be?" he asks.

"We're from Research Division 3," Ando lies. "We were told to help out with the new development."

It's impossible to see any expression through the mask but the man seems skeptical. "Were you? Didn't realize word has gotten out so fast.

"We were told that Division 4 needed the extra manpower in dealing with the Seer," Chiaki adds, hoping using Hope's term helps.

The man seems surprised. "Oh, so then you do know." The peephole slams shut, and there's a clanking of locks before the main door opens. "Well, we could use the assistance. It's in sector 2A."

There's a few scientists in hazmat suits working the area. Chiaki counts nearly a dozen workers as they make their way to sector 2A. "We were real lucky to get our hands on a Seer," their guide explains as he leads them forward. "They only breed from gen-mutes, so there aren't any here in Haven. The Chancellor is real interested in figuring out how he can use its power."

He leads them to a big lab. In the middle of the room is a large glass tube. Laser beams run down the edges. All kind of monitors are connected to it, listing results and shooting energy waves inside.

Hope sits inside the glass tube, banging on the glass. Her face is determined, but powerless against her captors. Chiaki feels sick at the sight. Did they save her from one prison only for her to end up in another?

He starts looking at the control console monitors. There must be an eject button somewhere, right?

He leans over towards Ando. "We're going to get her out of here," he whispers through the hazmat suit. "I'm going to get her out of there. You take out the guards."

Ando nods.

There's a beeping noise at one of the monitors in the corner. "A message from the Chancellor!" the scientist yells. "He's given us full approval to move on to phase 2!"

The other scientists in the room cheer and move in to take a look at the screen. Chiaki decides that this is his chance. He takes a sharp rod from a nearby tool table and stabs it through the main console. There's an explosion and a burst of smoke, and the lasers cut off. The other scientists look up in shook, and Ando is on them in a flash, punching them across the room.

Chiaki scrambles up the podium, and pulls the glass up to pull Hope out. She still looks panicked, so he throws the mask off his hazmat suit. "It's you!" she cries, as he scoops her up in his arms and makes a break for the door.

Red lights start flashing as one of the scientists hits an alarm. Chiaki and Ando make a run for the entrance, but they're cut off by a wall of armed guards. They point the guns at the intruders.

"Fire!" yells the commander.

"No!" Chiaki yells out.

The guns fire. A wall of bullets fly at them. Chiaki sees his life flash before his eyes. He's going to die. But at least he'll go out with Ando, knowing they're trying to save someone.

He prepares for the worst.

There's a bright flash of purple light.

And then, suddenly, everything just stops.

 

***

Chiaki is still aware of things, but he can't move; can't even blink. The bullets hang suspended in midair. Out of the side of his vision, he can see Hope floating just above them. Her wings are fully outstretched and her eyes blaze with violet. He stares, powerless to move, he sees her draw her hands through the empty air and pull in handfuls of woven violet thread.

"I am so sorry this happened," she says. "You two saved me from Nova. You came back to save me from the government. I can't let you die like this." Her face tightens at the strain of keeping the threads in hand. "I'm going to fix this. I'm going to save you."

Tears roll down her cheeks. "Find me again. Rescue me again. This time, don't try to sneak in. Knock out this guards here. Is there something you can use, like a sleeping gas or something? Just make sure they're out cold."

Hope tightens her hands around the woven threads and pulls. "Forgive me," she says. The braided strands unravel, faster and faster, until the loose cords spin around her in an unseen breeze.

There's an overpowering burst of purple light that fills Chiaki's vision, and then--


SET

 

Chiaki snaps to attention in his hover-cruiser seat. He feels completely disorientated about where he is. Wasn't he in a lab? Weren't there bullets? What's...

He looks around. Everyone else is dressed in full riot gear, and no one else seems shaken but Ando. They were... That's right, they were preparing for a raid on the Saint Nova cult. That attack... Those people...

He shakes his head. He can't afford to get distracted now. The Haven Municipal Police have spent too long preparing for this.

The hover-cruisers reach the skyscraper district of the Haku ward and slam into the side of Nova's building. Officers spill out of the cars, guns ready, exchanging gunfire with heavily armed cultists.

There's a stairway off to the side. Their recon on the building said that most of the members had their sleeping quarters two floors below the main area.

He and Ando reach the residential level and push the door open. Bodies of cultists litter the floor.

"They're dead," Ando says. It isn't a question. Somehow he knows it too. Cups lie around the dead cultists and somehow he just knows that the members all willingly drank poison to avoid capture. He should check to sure. He doesn't.

There's a door off to the side of the room. Both men carefully make their ways across the room, and Chiaki pushes it open.

It's a supply closet. Stacks of boxes line the walls. At the end of the room is a girl, with wings. She lies prostrate on the floor, not moving. Chiaki pulls off his helmet and gently lifts up one of her wings to see her face.

She's young, probably no more than fifteen. She breathes heavily, like she's over-exerted herself by sprinting or something, but doesn't move.

"A girl... with wings?" Ando asks.

With her wing raised, Chiaki can see a heavy metal chain linking a leather collar around her neck to a ring the floor. "They must have been keeping her locked up," he says. "Can I use your knife?"

Ando hands over his service knife, and then gently takes the girl's wing in hand. Chiaki carefully slices through the collar keeping her prisoner.

"We should get her out of here," he says. "She probably needs medical treatment."

He hands the knife back to Ando and very carefully scoops the girl up in his arms. She stirs a bit as he lifts her off the ground. "Chi... you...," she says.

"Are you alright?" Ando asks. "Were they keeping you captive?"

The girl gives them a weak smile. "Yes, but it's okay. You came back for me. Thank you, Chiaki, Ando."

Chiaki has no idea what she's talking about.

" How do you know our names?" he asks.

She lets out a weak laugh. "Ah, you wouldn't... Never mind. Let's get out of here."

Chiaki and Ando carefully carry her across the chaotic scene outside. The sight of all the bodies splayed on the floor leaves a sick feeling in Chiaki's stomach.

"What's your name?" he asks the girl, trying to distract himself.

"Hope. Hope Verdandi. I'm a Seer."

Chiaki doesn't know what to make of that last comment, but the girl doesn't seem to want to elaborate.

They slowly make it back up the stairs to the main floor. The raid seems to be over, with the remaining fighting cultists lying prone on the floor, their guns knocked aside.

"How could they have known we were coming?" Ando asks. "This was supposed to have been a secret raid."

"This isn't the first time it's happened," the girl mumbles. "This isn't even the second. I think we're on... five, now? It took Nova a while to escape in time." Her hands tighten, taking in small fistfuls of the fabric of Chiaki's uniform shirt. "But I'll keep going until we make it. All of us."

The girl seems absolutely exhausted. Chiaki hopes they can help her get to a better place.

***

They make it up to the roof. Hope's too exhausted to stand, so Chiaki holds her in his arms while Ando gets her a water bottle from their pack.

A pair of armoured cars are waiting for them. A dark-haired woman in a well-cut business suit makes a beeline for Chiaki and Ando as they lift Hope out of the hover-cruiser.

"Thank you officers," she says brusquely. "We'll take it from here."

"And you are?" Ando asks.

The woman pulls an official badge from out of her breast pocket. "Agent Urth, Haven Research Division 4. I have orders from the Chancellor himself to take possession of this girl."

Something about the department name leaves a heavy feeling in the pit of Chiaki's stomach. He should trust this woman; he wouldn't normally have any reason not to. But something, some flicker of recognition, makes him stop.

"If you don't mind, Agent, I think Ms. Verdandi probably needs some medical attention first. We found her chained up inside, and it would be best if a doctor took a look at her."

The woman's face darkens. She puts her badge away and beckons to her security guards. "With all due respect, Agents, that's not your call to make. I'm here on behalf of higher government authorities. If you refuse to comply, I can have you put on temporary suspension."

Chiaki thinks hard, but makes the call that feels better to him. He tries to walk away, but a pair of large agents in hazmat suits corner him and forcefully remove Hope from his arms.

"Remember: run, don't fight this time," Hope manages to call out before she's strapped onto a gurney, and wheeled into the waiting car.

Chiaki watches it take off, and the tension inside him only grows stronger.

 

***

The force is let off shift after the conclusion of the raid, and Chiaki and Ando hit up an izakaya for some food and beer. But seeing Hope dragged off like that doesn't sit right. They've barely spoken, but Chiaki still feels the need to find out what they're doing.

They go back to the office and browse HOWLnet, but most of the information on Research Division 4 is classified. They do find the address of the building in the Silver Tier, and grab a couple of hazmat suits from police headquarters to fit in with the researchers there.

They're about to leave the HQ, but Chiaki stops. Ando takes a few steps more before noticing that his partner isn’t with him and turning back. "What is it?" he asks.

"I feel... I feel like just sneaking in isn’t the best plan." His eyebrows crease as he strains to remember a half-faded memory. "I feel like we need something to knock out the people there."

"What, like the knockout gas the division picked up for the raid?"

"Yeah, something like that." He turns back to poke through the supplies and grabs a couple of aerosol cans with long nozzles. "Let's grab these, just in case," he says.

With their gear in hand, they head off.

****

Research Division 4 is a tall, windowless building in the Silver Tier's Lazare Ward next to a garage full of municipal construction vehicles. They dress themselves in the hazmat suits and buzz at the main entrance.

A worker in a hazmat suit opens a peephole window. "And who are you supposed to be?" he asks.

"We're from Research Division 3," Ando lies. "We were asked to help out with the new development."

"Were you? Didn't realize word has gotten out so fast."

"We were told that Division 4 needed the extra manpower in dealing with the Seer," Chiaki adds.

The man seems surprised. "Oh, then you do know." The peephole slams shut, and there's a clanking of locks before the main door opens. "Well, we could use the assistance. It's in sector 2A."

They enter the building, and then jump the man, squeezing the nozzle of the can into the breathing tube of the hazmat suit. The stuff is powerful enough to knock out a room full of cultists, and the man drops to the floor like a dead weight. The other scientists in the room turn at the noise, but Chiaki and Ando are on them in a flash, managing to knock all of them out before any of the scientists hit the alarm button.

"Now what?" Ando asks, breathing fast from the adreline rush. "Someone's bound to come along."

"He said sector 2A," Chiaki says. "It can't be that hard to find."

They run down the hall, watching the numbers tick by until the finally reach sector 2A. They burst through the door to see a room with a huge glass tube in the middle, covered in lasers. Hope lays inside, slumped against the glass, as scientists run diagnostics on her.

One of the scientists turns to see them. "Hey, who are you?" she asks. "You’re not supposed to be here."

Chiaki jumps forward and doses her with gas before she can call any guards. There's far fewer scientists here, and they make quick work of them before shedding the hazmat suits.

"Now what?" Ando asks.

"Now we grab her and go," Chiaki says. "Help me out here."

The two of them lift the glass and pull Hope out. She's still tired and weak, so she only lets out a quiet groan as Chiaki pulls her into a fireman's carry. The three of them run for the entrance.

An alarm goes off, but it's too late to stop them escaping the building. They use their Haven police badges to access the garage, and find three heavy digger trucks parked on the ground floor.

"Think you can run one of those?" Chiaki asks.

Ando grins. "You bet."

They run to the middle one, and Chiaki straps Hope into a seat as Ando works on hot-wiring the massive vehicle. He lets out a cry of excitement as it roars to life.

"Let's get out of here," he says.

They peel out of the building, and down the thin roadway connecting the research building to the surrounding tunnel settlements. For a minute Chiaki thinks they've done it.

Hope wakes up with a jolt as the truck flies over a bump. "What...?" she says as she takes in her surroundings. Her eyes focus in on Chiaki and her mouth opens in surprise she says. "You came back." she says.

Ando grins from behind the wheel. "Of course. Seeing that lab, we couldn't leave you in there."

Hope smiles. "I'm glad you made it out this time."

Chiaki wonders what she's talking about, but he's distracted by more pressing things as a pair of police hover-cruisers come up on them, sirens blazing. "Guess they know about our break in," he says.

One of the cruisers drops low to hang right above them. A loudspeaker starts up, loud enough to be heard through the truck's walls. "Unauthorized vehicle SD47, this is the police. Stop and release your captive or we will be forced to take action."

"Don't let them take me back!" Hope says.

Ando's jaw tightens. "Don't worry; they won't be able to follow once we reach the maintenance tunnels." He steps on the gas and the truck shoots forward.

The police cruiser comes down closer and closer, until it drops right on top of them. There's a sickening cracking noise, and then the whole road gives way. Hope screams as the ground drops out beneath them.

"We're falling!" she cries.

"Thrusters!" Chiaki says. "Use the stabilizer thrusters to get us aground!"

Ando slams a fist on the thrusters button -- but nothing happens. He tries again, but still nothing. He swears. "They're out! The thrusters are busted on this!"

Chiaki panics. They're going to die. The car is going to fall all the way to the bottom of the Bronze Tier and kill them all on impact.

And yet, Hope has wings...

He turns to her. "Can you fly?" he says.

"What?" she says.

"You have wings. You can you fly on them?"

She flexes them. "Yes..."

He knows what they have to do. He undoes Hope's seatbelt, kicks one of the doors open, and points.

"Then go! Save yourself!"

"What?" she says. "But you--"

He grabs her hands and pushes her out the door. The wind catches her wings and keeps her aloft even as the truck falls faster and faster.

"You can do it!" Chiaki yells.

"Fly! Fly!" Ando yells. "Get out of here!"

The wind roars around them as the truck plummets through the air.

"But you'll die!" Hope calls over the rush of air.

Chiaki gives her a sad smile. "It's okay, as long as you're safe."

She flexes her wings, testing them in the wind. Chiaki hopes she'll fly, just take off like a rocket and soar to freedom straight through the upper dome of Haven.

It's okay if they don't make it, as long as she does.

"I'm sorry," Hope says.

She lets go of Chiaki's hands and throws her wings open wide. She lets out a scream of intensity and her eyes blaze violet.

And just like that, everything stops.

***

They all hang there suspended in midair. Time stops as Hope sweeps her arms through the air and gathers up handfuls of woven purple threads. Sweat beads on her forehead and her hands shake from the intensity of trying to keep things together.

"It can't end like this," she says as she gathers the thread in her hands. "I will not let you die on my behalf. Take a different truck. Take one with working thrusters."

Chiaki thinks she looks like she might be sick. How much strain does doing this put on her? She can't have the strength left to do this more than once.

Tears roll down her cheeks. "Find me again," she says. "Save me one more time. This time, this time I know we can do it."

She pulls the ropes, and the threads all unravel around her. Chiaki tries to reach for her and his hand moves just a bit when violet light engulfs everything, and then--


GO

 

Chiaki snaps to attention in his hover-cruiser seat. He's disoriented for a minute before his mind focuses. Right, he and Ando are with the rest of the police force, on their way to raid Saint Nova Church. They've been planning this mission for months. He should be anxious.

But this time he can remember what happened. It's faint, like a half-remembered film, but he knows they've done it before, he knows they rescued a Seer girl; he knows they tried to save her from the government and she saved them from falling instead. Was it just the one time or has it been more?

"Do you... remember falling?" he whispers to Ando.

"With... Hope? Yeah, I do," he says. "We'll make it this time."

The hover-cruisers crash into the top floor of the building again, and Chiaki isn't even surprised this time when the cultists are waiting for them with guns. He and Ando make a beeline for the stairs to the residential quarters two floors down.

They're not shocked to see poisoned cultists, and he and Ando carefully make their way forward to the supply closet at the back of the room.

"Hope?" he calls out as he pushes the door open. "Are you here?"

There's no answer. They push forward and find her splayed out on the floor between stacks of boxes. Chiaki gently lifts her wing and sees that she's unconscious.

"Give me your knife," he says to Ando, and uses it to cut her leather collar off. He gently picks her up in his arms. She's alive, but her breathing is ragged and her pulse is slower than it should be.

"How is she?" Ando asks.

"Not good," Chiaki says. "We gotta get her out of here. I think the strain of rolling back time is too much for her."

They head back to the stairs and carry her up. They reach the roof, and Ando tries to give her water out of his rations pack, but it just dribbles down her chin instead. He gives Chiaki a worried look. "This isn't good," he says.

"Thank you, officers. We'll take it from here," says a voice behind them. They turn to see Agent Urth, who pulls out her badge. "Agent Urth, Haven Research Division 4. I have orders from the Chancellor himself to take possession of this girl."

"She's unconscious," Ando says. "She probably needs medical attention now."

Agent Urth stows her badge. "We'll make sure she gets it." A pair of large officers in hazmat suits step up and take Hope out of Chiaki's grasp. They tie the unconscious girl to a gurney and zip a plastic covering over her head.

"Thank you for your assistance," Agent Urth says. She steps into a waiting hover-car, and takes off behind her colleagues.

"She took her again," Ando says.

"I know," Chiaki replied. "But we know how to find her."

 

***

Their shift ends once the raid wraps up, and they kill some time at an izakaya so that everyone will clear out of the station house. They head back in, and grab a couple of hazmat suits and a couple aerosol cans of knockout gas. They head over to the Research Division 4 building and buzz at the main entrance.

A worker in a hazmat suit opens a peephole window. "And who are you supposed to be?"

"We're from Research Division 3," Ando lies. "We were asked to help out with the new development."

"Were you? Didn't realize word has gotten out so fast."

"We were told that Division 4 needed the extra manpower in dealing with the Seer," Chiaki adds.

The man seems surprised. "Oh, then you do know." The peephole slams shut, and there's a clanking of locks before the main door opens. "Well, we could use the assistance. It's in sector 2A."

They use the gas to take out most of the scientists, and carry on to sector 2A. It's a lab with huge glass tube in middle connected to a number of monitors. They take out these scientists too, and Chiaki slams a sharp tool through the console, disabling the lasers keeping them from Hope.

They shed the hazmat suits and pull the girl out of the tube. Chiaki cradles her in his arms. She’s still breathing hard, and she doesn't respond to his touch.

"Hope?" he says. "We're here. We've come for you. We're getting you out of here."

They make a beeline for the exit and manage to get out before an alarm go off. They break into the garage next door, and head for the truck in the middle of three before Ando stops them.

"We did this last time," he says. "The thrusters are out."

He heads over to the one on the right instead, makes sure its thrusters are operational, and the hot-wires it to go. The car speeds out of the garage and down the thin roadway that links the research building to the surrounding residential areas.

Sirens fill the air as a pair of police cruisers catch up with them. Its loudspeaker crackles to life. "Unauthorized vehicle SD89, this is the police. Stop and release your captive or we will be forced to take action."

"Right on cue," Ando grumbles, and hits the gas.

One of the cruisers drops down on top of their truck and there's a loud breaking sound as the road crumbles behind their combined weight.

Ando slams a hand on the thruster button, and lets out a whoop of joy as emergency stabilization thrusters roar to life. The truck shoots forward and slams into a Silver Tier apartment complex.

Chiaki grabs Hope in his arms and kicks open the door as they exit out of the truck into the apartment of a shocked family. "Sorry!" Chiaki calls to them. "Just passing through."

They run out into the main hall of the building and find an exit into a parking garage. It's full of expensive Silver-quality cars. They would be handy for escaping in.

"Let's take that," Chiaki says, motioning to a nearby '85 Skuld convertible. "Can you hot-wire that?"

Ando grins. "I can hot-wire anything."

Chiaki pops the lock and buckles Hope into the backseat as Ando gets the car going. The engine hums to life, and they peel out towards one of the interior freeways.

"Do you know a way out of Haven?" Chiaki asks.

"Yeah," Ando says. "There's a maintenance tunnel that leads to an exit to the outside. It's not used anymore, but they still have new recruits do sweeps of the area sometimes to make sure nothing can get in." He smirks. "There isn't much security there for keeping people from going out though."

They reach one of the spiral ramps that winds its way up through the Silver Tier towards the Gold, and there's a noise from the back seat. Chiaki turns to see Hope stirring at last.

"Are you okay?" he asks.

"What happened?" she asks dazedly. "Did we make it? Did the thrusters work this time?"

Chiaki smiles. "Yeah, they did, all thanks to you. I should thank you for saving our lives."

She seems surprised at the compliment. "Oh. Well. You saved me. I couldn't bear to see you suffer because of me."

"So," Chiaki says. "You want to go to the outside world? I guess we've come this far; there's no turning back now."

"It's nice," Hope says. "It used to be awful, ages and ages ago, but it's not so bad. My mother runs a farm. We have sheep there." Her smile drops. "I haven't seen her in so long."

The sound of sirens pick up again as they make their way higher and higher through the city. A hover-cruiser follows them up from the cavern outside, waiting for the moment when they re-enter the main city.

Ando swerves left and smashes through a mesh gate into a maintenance tunnel. It's old, from the days when Haven was first built as a shelter, and neon signs spelling out dire warning about the consequences of leaving line the way. Chiaki holds his breath as they reach the end of the tunnel and smash the car through the final gate--

And then feels his mouth drop open at the sight outside. It's beautiful. There's plants everywhere, and wide open fields. The bright blue sky seems to stretch on forever across the horizon. The remains of a city -- the old above-ground kind from before the wars -- sits in the distance. He feels like he should be panicking, but it's too much to take in.

Hope breaks into a grin. "I'm out. I'm free," she says. "I can go home. Thank you. Thank you both so much." She undoes her seat belt and shakily tries to get to her feet. "Help me up," she says. "I think... I think if I can get airborne, I can show you the way to our farm."

Ando steadies the car, and Chiaki helps her over the seat. Hope spreads her wings and the air catches them, holding steady over the car. Chiaki slowly lets go of her hand and she takes off into the air, soaring up to touch the clouds.

Chiaki takes a deep breath. The air tastes clean and unfiltered. He doesn't know what the future outside Haven holds. Maybe all the horrors they've been warned of will come to pass. Maybe things will be better. But as he looks at Ando and sees Hope wheeling high overhead, but he's okay with it in this moment.