[Read the Introduction]
Ok, so I’ve found YEARS of journal entries, and as I go thru it, some context was clearly necessary. Searching for “Thalia Gordon” brings up very little, but “Okane” is all over the Archives. I’ll talk more about him as I go, but the first bit here is an old AENet alert dated April 3rd, 2100.
ALL ZONES WARNING
At 0935, Fionn James Okane and approx. 150 soldiers of 8th Company attacked South Gate hangars 4A and 4B. 20 civilian casualties confirmed, 43 injured. Insurgents stole 6 APCs, 20 AUVs, and 2 Minotaur battle tanks. Current whereabouts unknown, last seen heading southeast toward Zone 1. Be advised, insurgents are heavily armed and equipped with 5 Hercules MK II Powered Armor units. Report suspicious Aegis activity immediately. All affiliated towns are to remain on level 1 lockdown until insurgents are apprehended. See AENet for list of known insurgents.
Lethal force has been authorized.
ALL ZONES WARNING
-Searches for “Thalia Gordon” dry up after 2095, but in searching for “Nightshade,” I discovered this testimony in the Glaucus Department of Justice evidence logs. The transcript is rather long, so I’ll post it in pieces along with the journals as I analyze them all.
Please state your name for the record.
Saira Beshimov. Daughter of Ahmed and Nadia Kassis. Wife of scum dog Hamid Beshimov, gods damn the dead of his family. I am born to the tribe who live outside the glasslands. We live many years in the desert, until we meet the men from Minerva. I am not yet old enough to marry then, but it is all I want. All I know. Marry your husband, make your children, the gods smile and the tribe grow. Minerva, they change this. They speak on the old world, all we lost and all they have. Clean water. Lights like the sun that fit in the hand. Machine with wheels that speed the desert like metal gods. My tribe, they take me to find Minerva. We have less than one hundred people, very small. But Minerva, they take us in and send teacher to teach us their ways and their tongue. I am…okay English, but very good with machine. Love to fix cars. My father, he say I have oil for blood.
When did you move to Gulnara?
Not for years. I want to go to Minerva home in the mountains, but my father and mother, they want I should marry and make my children. My tribe, they move with the herd in Minerva lands, and every town, they look for a husband. Two month ago, we visit Gulnara for to trade. I fall in love there. Not with scum dog Hamid Beshimov, but with supply depot there. Gulnara is central town for Minerva lands. Many machine that need to be fix. Hamid, he is defense engineer. Defense! The goat! Yela’an sabe’a jad lak!
Mrs. Beshimov, can you stick to the English you do know? We don’t speak nomad.
Please have patience, sir. I try for you. What is your name?
Outwater. Sergeant Outwater.
I must tell of my story, Sergeant Outwater. When you hear it all, you will understand.
I apologize for the sergeant’s behavior, ma’am. Please continue.
Thank you. Counselor Martinez, yes? You have a beautiful name, but I can’t recall.
Good. Savio. You will hear it all, about the Family, the Dust Witch, and goat sucking Hamid Beshimov. You will understand why I curse his name in every breath. I marry him for to work on the machine in Gulnara, but he want a house wife. He do not teach. I learn still, and I work when I do not cook for the mud pig, my husband. Last morning when they come, I work on the north gate transmitter on top of the perimeter wall. We cannot send or receive signal, so Journeyman Abdulin, he tell me to fix.
As I work, I see nothing is wrong with the transmitter. I know this machine, and nothing is wrong. I sigh and look up to see cloud of dust flow like moving dunes across the desert. I see this before many time. Call it “convoy?” Yes. Truck with supplies, sometimes Aegis patrol. I ask every day if there will be convoy – it mean work for me in hangar – but today I am told there is not. I see next to me Lieutenant Nayar, he is stand straight, as I see animals do. On his face, there is no fear. Only blankness. Lieutenant Nayar, he is Aegis squad leader of Gulnara. He very emotional man. He tell a joke all the time and he always laugh at himself, but he is also only man I ever see to cry. It scares me, sirs, more than to see him afraid. It is like a stranger to look at his face and see nothing.
“I hear there is no convoy today” I say.
“Same,” he tell me. I look at dust again. Low shapes move in shadow, far away. I take out the scope I find in the desert as a child, rifle scope, and I hold it to my eye. There are two Aegis APC on the road, and many AUV on the side. These vehicle are brown with the desert stain, paint chipped, and armor need of fix. I never see Aegis vehicle like this.
I know at once why Lieutenant Nayar, he stand up straight and lose his emotion. This is not Aegis convoy. This is the Family.
How did they get in? You’re supposed to be on lockdown.
For six month, Minerva, they tell about the Family. For six month, the demon men of Aegis, they take from the desert people. We know the lockdown, Sergeant Outwater. But no man sleep for six month with his eyes open. We wait for attack that never come, and we rest. We need rest. My shit-sucking husband, he post at the watchtower, and he always leave the gate open. Nogoyev, the headman, he give up to tell Hamid close the fucking gate. He give up as the Family never come. My husband, the dickless man, he post there on this morning, and as the sun is hot, the gate is open. Lieutenant Nayar, he unstrap his rifle and tell me to run for scum dog Hamid.
I run across the wall, and I hear the engine roar echo the canyon. It get close and closer as my heart beat fast and faster. I climb the ladder to watchtower controls, and I see the grease pig he stand at the controls; he lean toward the window like blind old man.
“Close the gate!” I tell him. He look at me and pretend he do not understand. I think he is frozen, like Lieutenant Nayar, so I shove him into the window and reach for control. Ya ibn el sharmouta, he grab me and throw me almost out the watchtower. Hamid the blind goat, he stand before the controls like he guard them. His face is far away and I smell piss in the room.
“Can you see?!” I scream, and I dig my fingers in his arms. “The Family! They come for us.”
“I know,” he say, and his voice is soft. “The gate will not stop them. If we do as they say, we may live.”
“We?” I ask. “You know what they do? They kill men. They make women wish to die.”
“Some, yes,” he say. “But not you or me. I have a place for we to hide.”
I take my hands from his arms. The engine roar is so close now. I hear Lieutenant Nayar yelling and metal footstep on the wall. The Aegis team, I think. Hamid, he try to hold me, his coward heart pumping piss instead of blood, and I swing my arm to slap his empty face. I throw all my fear and my anger into this slap. As I shake the feel back to my hand, there is explosion, and we fall to the floor.
There is gunfire on the wall, screams in the town. I run and slide down the ladder. I do not care that bullets chip and ping the wall. I slip on blood, and I see the Aegis team hide behind the wall, but there only three men. I remember a hole, pieces of wall on the ground. Lieutenant Nayar is gone.
I run down the ramp to the town square. Some people, they run for the south gate, some people they run for the hangar. Some people gather in the square. I see Headman Nogoyev stand in the dirt road. So strange, that people stop and stare while under attack. They know, like I know, that there only two AUV that work in the hangar, and with no transmitter, there is no call to Aegis patrols. The last patrol is two days ago, and next patrol is not for three days more. Still, I act when I know to act is nothing. I cannot stand to watch.
Then, I hear a voice behind me. Woman’s voice, speak English with a strange accent. “Don’t be frightened,” she tell me. I look behind and I see her. I see the Dust Witch. I do not know this yet, I only see this woman in hood and cloak, this woman of dark skin and wicked smile who hide her eyes in shadow. I never see her before, and this surprise me more than the hood and the voice. Gulnara is small town – important town, but small. I do not see this woman come to here.
She say, “These men are cursed. They do not know this, but today the curse will kill them.” Then I hear the engines and the rip of tires on the dirt. The AUV, they ride into town, pack full of men in armor. Men hang off the roll cage. Men stand up in the bed. They are cover in dirt and missing pieces of armor, just like their vehicle. Some men, they have Aegis rifle, and some men, they have old rifle. Many, they have pipe and blade. They circle Headman Nogoyev and I hear they sing, but I do not understand. Three, four, six, eight AUV drive into the town square, and I smell the rot of meat and the stink of the madman. Two AUV, they drive straight through the town to the south gate. I do not see what they do. I think they chase the people who try to escape. I watch the other circle the town square, I see the men, they lean out and sing in the faces of the people who stand and watch.
Then, the APC come, drive backward through the gate. The doors throw open, and I see…
Take your time, Mrs. Beshimov.
Please excuse. My breathe. I…I…
Want me to get a sedative?
Tom. Let her breathe. She’s okay. You’re okay, Mrs. Beshimov.
I want to tell. I want to tell about him. But…oh a-ozu billahi mena shaitaan Arrajeem.
Him? Who did you see?
We know who she saw. Let’s just make sure. Mrs. Beshimov, I’m going to show you some pictures. Please point to the man you saw in the APC.
Him. The bald man. Ohh-h-h gods…
I know his name. The Dust Witch, she tell me. But when I see him…I just see…this giant. Made of metal like Minotaur tank. His bald head look small in this tank that he wear. His left arm, too, has no armor, and it bare from shoulder down. It has burn, black scars all across the skin. In his right hand, he carry a machine gun from the top of APC. The belt of bullets drag in the dirt.
This man…Amon Kelter. He walk to Headman Nogoyev, slow as the shift of sand. Nogoyev shake his head before the man even speak.
“Wait,” he say to Nogoyev. “Before you shake your head at me.”
I expect a deep voice, a cold voice, but his voice, it is soft as whispers. It is like the butcher knife that falls on the head of the lamb. He tell Nogoyev that his brother need of to eat. He say that his brother need of to make their children. He say that life is hard, and death is hard, but to kill is easy. He give Nogoyev list of demand. Nogoyev, he shake his head again. Amon Kelter, he swing his giant right arm so fast I cannot see, and his machine gun crush into the head of Nogoyev. I see spray of blood and spit and teeth. I look away, but is too late. I still see the head crush, like under a tire. The bones bend and pop. The eyeball burst. I look away, and when I look back, Nogoyev lie in the dirt, his head flat and spread like a jelly.
Then, a man scream. Not a man of Gulnara, but a Family brother. He scream and shoot into the marketplace, and the people run into house and alley. The bald giant, his little head spin in his suit and he shriek at the man about waste of ammunition. But this too late. The Family spill from the AUV and they run into crowd with weapons and red wet eyes. I back away, and I feel that the woman in hood is gone. One man, he charge into Apprentice Talib before me and knock him to the ground with metal pipe. He does not look at Talib – even as he stomp on Talib ribs, he stare at me. There is hunger. His uniform, it is Aegis but his skin is red and peels. He is wearing only breastplate and one shoulder. The unclean stink of his breath poison the air. I freeze, just for second, as I see this demon in the body of our protector.
I run into town, through tight alleys. I hear his footstep behind. I hear the pipe clink on wall, I hear it like: clink, clink, clink. Close to me. Right behind. I turn to the end of alley, boarded by tall wood fence. I try to turn, but I trip on my abaya and land on my palm. I do not feel the burn. I only feel the blood pump through my chest and the tingle of fear all over. His breath comes close, I want to choke. I get up, and then a hand cover my mouth. I taste the dirt and the grease on my lips. His breath on my neck feel like it infect my skin. He say something to my ear, but I cannot recall. I do not think – in moment like this, you become animal.
Suddenly, his grip go loose. I look again at wood fence, and there she is, where no one stood before. The woman of the hood. Only her mouth is cover by a cloth with strange symbol and her eyes glow green in the shadow of the hood. Her hood billow out, and I see armor on her body – armor like Aegis, only not like Aegis. Now I notice large rifle strap to her back.
“I suggest you let her go,” the woman, she say. The man, he push me to the ground.
“Oh, you fucked now,” he say. “Brother Kelter, he gonna have some fun.”
“Would you fetch him for me?” she ask. The man jump over me and rush the woman. He swing his pipe, and she grab it in the swing. There is pop and flash of light as she touch. I see a thing on her glove, like a battery. The man, he start to shake, and I see electric jump from her fist down the pipe. There is crackle and smell of the burning skin. He drop the pipe and fall back on top of me – I push away and stand at the wall.
“Call to them,” she say.
“Brothers!” he try to shout, but his voice is weak. I see fear in his wet red eyes.
“Louder,” she tell him. The man, he get up and run back out the alley. As he run, I see the woman lift her right arm. There is small hole in her armor of the wrist. It pop, and a puff of smoke come out. I follow the puff to the man as he run, and a small dart stick in his back. He stumble for a moment, then the dart explode into flame, as if jaws of fire spirit open up to swallow him. Fire run up the alley wall and drip from his fingertip. He become a human ball of fire. The man scream, and his voice is not weak. His scream rip the air, even above the whoosh of the fire.
“What is your name?” the woman ask me. I do not look away from the man of fire.
“Saira,” I tell her.
“Saira Beshimov?” she say. “Then we will meet again. I have business with your husband.”
“You…” I start to say, but my brain, it stumble. I know this woman. I know the stories. I think this woman is a legend. The Dust Witch of the Waste, who made of shadow and command fire like the djinn. The Dust Witch who know all and see all, who change her face and voice and hunt barbarian for to harvest bodies for her magic. They say she is ghost, who ride a ghost horse, and if she wish you to die, no matter where you are, then you make arrange for your burial. But I say now she is real. I see her magic. I know her name.
“Call me Nightshade,” she say. “And remember what I say: don’t be frightened.”
I hear footstep. Big footstep. I turn around and the fire is burn down. I see the Family brother curled on his knee, black like tar. He is boil down to lump of coal. The fat of his body bubble yellow, and he smoke with taste like lighter fluid. Two men turn the corner – one is…him. He scrape the wall of the alley with his giant shoulder. He look at the melted man and then he look up at me. I look back and Nightshade is gone. I hold up my hands.
“I do not do this,” I say carefully, choosing my English.
“I know,” he say. “Where is Hamid Beshimov?”
“I am his wife. I take you to his home.”
He step carefully over the lump of coal and grab me with his bare arm. I see his eyes as his face is close to mine. They are too wide, like owl’s eyes.
“First, we find your husband,” he whisper. “Then we talk about the woman who do this.”
I nod, and then I hear a pop. I think another gunshot, but then a red light wash over the town. We all look up and see a flare like red star shoot up from top of the canyon wall. Bright enough for patrol or satellite to see. The man, he say something I do not understand, and he lift me up with one arm. He drag me out of the alley, but his footstep are no longer slow.
-And here is the next relevant journal entry.
July 12th, 2095
The anticipation this morning was palpable. This is a cliche that has been worn to a gossamer wisp, a nothing phrase that has been shaved down and baked dry by repetition and misuse. Watching the Inter-Collegiate Finals in football is not cause for palpable excitement. Waiting in line to see a newly rediscovered film is not cause for palpable excitement. Waiting for test results is agonizing, yes; internally, you may feel your organs unstick themselves and churn about, but this is not palpable excitement. Everything internal is palpable. This is an exterior force; it is a word that manifests itself into a pressure that squeezes your flesh and bones together into one vibrating mass. I knew that something had changed in my hideout, because of this palpable word. However, I did not know what it was or where it had come from.
I dressed and cleaned myself at the stainless steel water closet, feeling more compressed than usual in the pneumatic tube that contained toilet, sink, and shower. There was a new smell in the air. I thought perhaps that it was the smell of anticipation. I left my room and opened the door to the living quarters, and suddenly the bubble of anticipation popped. A woman stood at the electric stove, swirling a pan back and forth over the red hot coils. She was taller than I, with a spine that curved like an uncoiled whip. Her hair was jet black and curled with great deliberation. She wore a bright red bathrobe, as if she were visiting the spa at HQ. I doubt she traveled across the desert in a bathrobe, so that means she’d already been here for some time without my knowledge.
The woman turned around, all smiles on her thin face. She looked young, but there was an ancient sharpness about it, like an antique battleaxe. It was a deadly sort of beauty.
“Hello, my lovely,” she said, in a slow and practiced voice.
I could transcribe what I said, but it would only make my response seem more ridiculous, and I have no interest in reliving this moment of embarrassment further.
“You were expecting someone…older? Manlier?” The woman drew an invisible curling mustache on her lip with the tips of her knife-edge fingernails.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone at all,” I mumbled.
“Liar,” she said. “You look surprised, but not surprised. I was hoping you’d be smart enough to find out I was coming. Otherwise you might have made the mistake of attacking me.”
“Agent Summerland, I presume?”
She beamed suddenly. “And you even got my name. Top score for today, my love. And if I’m at the correct safehouse, you must be Agent Nightshade.”
“So they tell me.”
“But what kind of nightshade are you?” she asked, moving the pan off the stove. I could see a golden omelette in the pan, as large as an American football. I realized the smell of anticipation was, in fact, the smell of butter and cheese and eggs. “There are many, many, many varieties of nightshade. There’s solanum, your potatoes and eggplants, with their heads stuck in the ground and their defenseless rumps waiting to be plucked and skinned. You’ve got your petunias, your sweet and ornamental flowers, useful only as window dressing and worm food. And then there’s Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade. Are you toxic, flower?”
Agent Summerland advanced on me, arms crossed over the cliffs of her bathrobe. I wish I’d come up with something clever to respond. I should have told her to keep her distance or she would find out. I did no such thing. She had disarmed me, and I was feeling rather like a tuber with my head in the dirt.
“What does Atropa mean?” she asked.
“It’s…one of the fates,” I stammered. “Atropos. She’s the Greek personification of death. Every mortal life has a string, and when it’s all been measured out, she cuts it.”
“Fate in the form of a beautiful woman. I knew we wouldn’t have to worry about book smarts with you. But can you be our Atropos? General Kubek isn’t looking for a potato or a petunia.”
“Point me at General Okane, ma’am, and I’ll shear his thread if it’s the last thing I do.”
Agent Summerland clicked her tongue and reached out to cup my chin. “I don’t doubt that, my little sprig of nightshade. But you can be so much more than poison in a cup. And if you want to destroy Fionn Okane – really destroy him – then you’ll have to be patient.”
“Why?” I snapped.
“Because if we wanted to kill General Okane, we would have sent him a bomb in a gift basket. But we don’t want to kill General Okane.”
“So Kubek lied to me. The bastard looked me in the eye – ”
“A steady gaze means nothing in the world, little flower,” she said. I’m ashamed that, even in rewriting it, this moment still burns my cheeks. “But I suspect you only heard what you wanted to hear. Killing Okane is not our primary objective. Do you even know the first thing about our man? His father built the bunker that the Foundation used to survive the War. Yes, the bunker that most of our little nation still lives in. Without Atsushi Okane, Minerva as we know it would have never existed. That kind of legacy alone is enough to immortalize a man, but young Fionn went and made himself a war hero, too. God, his wife was even the Minister of Internal Affairs before the cancer got her, and now her protege is the President of Oculus. He is possibly the only person in all of Minerva to be loved, respected, or at least personally known by everybody. If you kill him, you will first make him a martyr, and you will second trigger paranoia and chaos on a scale that Minerva has never seen within its own ranks.”
“And no one cares that he bombed a Minervan town and executed its entire population?”
“Oh, he got his slap on the wrist. Excessive force. Temporarily relieved from duty.”
“There are no lingering doubts? Nobody we can lean on?”
“Your little manuscript stirred up the sauce for a week or so, but the second investigation found nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll bet at least half of Minerva’s forgotten that it even happened.”
“So what can we do?”
“Two things,” Agent Summerland said, and her smile widened like a shark’s before she returned to her pan. She slid the omelette onto a plate and took a fork from the countertop. “I am going to plant you, and you are going to blossom.”
I waited a moment for her to divide up the omelette, but she simply began digging into it viciously, pressing her back to the counter and watching me with a bemused expression.
“I know you’re here to train me, so where are we to start?” I asked.
“Marksmanship,” Agent Summerland said, speaking with her mouth full.
“I’ve got all that from AOA.”
“No, no. Not even close,” she shot back. “Any grunt can fire a gun, just like anybody with a working hand can paint a picture. We don’t need a grunt and we don’t need just anybody. We need a maestro with a rifle. We need our Simo Häyhä.”
“The White Death?”
“Such a wonderful brain on you. Yes, the White Death. Credited with anywhere between 500 and 800 kills over the course of 100 days during World War II, could pick off a target over a quarter of a mile away in a single shot using only iron sights, often had the cajones to work alone. That guy. You know what Simo Häyhä said when somebody asked him how he became such a flawless sniper?”
“I thought I wasn’t going to kill Okane,” I interjected, feeling derailed and annoyed.
“’Practice.’ That’s what he said, and that’s what you’re going to do.” Agent Summerland put down the empty plate and dabbed at her mouth with the collar of her robe. “Excuse me. That’s why I’ve set up six polyurethane targets at the base of the canyon, a sniper rifle, and enough ammunition to double tap every last human being left on the planet. Sound like fun?”
“Can I have a bite first?” I asked, and I couldn’t help myself eyeballing the buttery plate.
“Oh, of course,” Agent Summerland replied, smiling as she pulled a nutrient bar from her robe. In the same graceful motion, she dropped the bathrobe from first one, then the other shoulder, like a waterfall of blood, to reveal a low cut kaftan made of black silk and embroidered with gold. “You can eat on the way,” she said, pressing the nutrient bar between my slack fingers.
I’d rather not relive the lectures she gave me during practice. At some point, while my eye was fixed to the scope and I was trying to shoot on the down breath, she must have slipped away to the hideout, because when we returned in the evening, I found that all of my e-books had been deleted from my tablet and access to the Archives had been blocked. My shoulder still aches, and I need the morphine more than ever, but she’s sitting in the main chamber, filing her nails next to the medicine cabinet, and I don’t think I could stand for one more snide comment from her.
It’s surprising to me how much I’ve grown to hate her in just one day. I’m beginning to wish I had just broken away from all of it and told General Kubek to gently fuck himself. But we shall see what new horrors await tomorrow. Close quarters combat, she said. We’re going to learn submission holds. She talks about hammerlocks just the same way my Primary Center ward used to talk about pita sandwiches for lunch. While Fionn Okane sleeps soundly in his mountain stronghold, I’ll try to avoid laying on my shoulder and hope I don’t dream about firing ranges. Not unless Agent Summerland’s shark face is mounted on the targets.
[Essence of Nightshade was written by guest contributor Josh Connor, author of the webcomic Steel Salvation, with Dan providing story guidance to make it canon along with writing the archivist commentary. Art by Robert Jackson.]