By Thalia Gordon
You’ve heard of Terekat, but you’ve never heard it called by its real name. We called it Oasis. Sitting next to a dry lake bed at the outer edge of Zone 5, Terekat is as far as a town can get without leaving Minerva’s sphere of influence. Still, at the rim of sand and nothingness, legends were spun of the bacchanalian parties hosted there. General Fionn Okane had personally fortified the town and converted it into an Aegis outpost by 2093, and the residents were so grateful for Minerva’s protection that they were known to accommodate a soldier’s every whims. The General built a geodesic dome around Terekat to filter out dust in the air and protect it from raiders. His original plans to expand the indigenous town into a colossal city of the future had proven impractical, as I’d discovered in a seminar last year, where the General had displayed to us, with a touch of pride, the extravagant blueprints of his failed utopia.
Even so, Terekat was already well-equipped for soldiers on leave. There was a brewery and a gambling house, but no brothel, since the girls of Oasis were said to be perpetually ready and willing. If it was illegal or discouraged in the Aegis barracks, General Okane let it happen under his great silver roof. It was an escape from regulated life inside Minerva’s main bunker, without Oculus looking over your shoulder or Glaucus bothering you about breeding programs and substance abuse. When you’re given leave, you spend it at Oasis. At least, that was what they told the cadets at AOA. Oasis seemed like a place for unbroken people who knew what their pleasures were, and I knew I didn’t belong there. Instead, I spent my leave in the gym, improving my PT scores, or in my room, perusing the Archives with my e-reader.
However, at the end of my last term I was convinced by two of my classmates to help them send off an upperclassman who had just graduated from AOA – the newly-minted Second Lieutenant Mark West. Lieutenant West (who insisted that we call him “Cowboy” and sported the ridiculous handlebar mustache to back it up) was an Oasis regular, and he wanted to celebrate with a night of drinking and good-natured debauchery before his first assignment came in. I was convinced because the idea of Oasis intrigued me, even if I feared the social obligations that came with it. My classmates, Cadets Steven Crane and Luther Mensah, promised me that I could spend the entire trip reading in my room at the pub if I would just have one drink and toast to Lieutenant Cowboy’s bright future as Sheriff of Kyrgyzstan. This seemed like a deal that would satisfy my curiosity and allow me to escape if the sheer amount of amorous men and women around me became too unbearable. Besides, I was tired of rejecting Crane’s attempts to socialize me, and he had been something like a friend for the past three years, so I felt I owed it to him.
We arrived at Oasis at about 1530, and by 1535, we were sitting at a table in an empty little pub called the Temple, our bags piled around us. The bartender rushed to pick up our bags as soon as we sat down, and a girl emerged from the back with a tray of beer. Cowboy hollered and rubbed his hands together, while I began to wonder if it was too early to retire to my room.
“Now this is service,” our new lieutenant said. The girl gave him a warm smile and tipped her head before vanishing into the back room once more. “This is what it’s all about, ladies and gentlemen. We keep the peace, and all we ask in return is a little gratitude.”
“And a lot of beer,” Luther said with a rolling laugh. They clinked glasses and my eyes flitted over to Crane’s, sitting between them. He was looking at me, and there was a guarded expression on his face. Perhaps he thought I was finally warming up to him, and that was why I’d agreed to join their little party. He’d been a flirt since the day I met him; once I told him he shared the same name as a great author, he took it to mean that I was clearly in love with him and my subsequent rebuffs were just a matter of playing hard to get. Even when I began shaving my head to avoid the attentions of men, he didn’t quit. But he was never aggressive about it, and he remained loyal to me for years in spite of the way I treated him. I wished I could give him what he wanted – I wanted to feel love, for once, instead of fear – but I knew I didn’t have what he was looking for. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him why, so I just did what I usually did: I looked away and pretended not to notice him.
The Temple wasn’t entirely empty, as I’d first thought. The dim sunlight in the room was twice filtered, first by the translucent skin of the dome above, and then by the little arabesque mesh windows on either side of the pub. In the shadows of one corner, I saw two older men at a table with a domino line of shot glasses between them. They looked like retired officers, with their expanding waistlines and unbuttoned Aegis uniforms. On the far side of the room, sitting at a table by himself, there was a young man with severely slicked black hair. He appeared to be studying the atoms making up his empty glass and paying no attention to anything else. Even so, he had a sort of violent, pent-up energy about him, as if he were ready to leap out of his chair at any moment. The girl behind the bar emerged again, moving with nervous speed to collect the man’s empty glass and replace it with another full of a milky fluid. Her expression when she first emerged was strangely tense, and all the warmth she had shown to Lieutenant West had been drained away. She was facing away from me as she resupplied the young man, but I could see him staring intently at her face with a maverick grin.
“Hey, T? You okay?” Crane asked. I turned back to our table and realized they were poised for a toast. This was part of the deal. I would be one step closer to freedom, so I raised my glass without comment.
“Alright, I want to say this now, before I drink too much,” Cowboy said, standing up. “There comes a time in a man’s life…”
Luther began to snicker.
“Cadet, don’t make me pull rank on you. I will court martial your ass if you make one more peep before I’m through.”
“The power’s gone to his head already,” Crane said.
“See, that’s what I wanted to tell y’all. This job…this rank, it comes with a sense of authority that’s…well, it’s a little heady. It’s the kind of power that can make you drunk.”
Luther raised one eyebrow and inched his glass toward his lips.
“What’d I say, Cadet?” Cowboy asked, suppressing a smile.
“No more peeps, LT.”
“Okay, now let’s make that no more of anything. I’ll be quick so you don’t have to sit still too long. What I’m trying to say is, I’ve thought about this for awhile now, and I know what kind of authority I want to be. I want to do right by our people. I want to bring good old-fashioned justice back to the world. Y’all better be thinking about what kind of authority you want to be. This time next year, I’ll be drinking to you.”
“Is that it?” Crane asked.
“Well, I had a couple more pages typed out and memorized, but Luther’s squirming like a damn child, so I don’t think it can wait,” Cowboy said. “Besides, beer’s getting warm.”
“Amen to that,” Luther said, and I dutifully clinked my glass with the rest of them. The two older officers behind us clapped, but when I glanced back at the man coiled up in the shadows, he was merely watching Lieutenant West with impish curiosity. It bothered me that I couldn’t read him, and this unease began to spread as the others settled into drinking. Was this the infamous Gomorrah that AOA cadets always told stories about? Where were all the fawning townspeople? What about the young bucks on leave? The others didn’t seem to notice anything strange, but West and Luther were too busy trying to one-up each other and Crane was too focused on making small talk with me.
“If you’re waiting for it to turn into whiskey, you’ll be waiting a long time,” he said, pointing to my brimming beer glass and trying to talk over West’s insistent theory that Tom Petty had survived the War and one of his descendants was sleeping in the bunk next to his.
“Not thirsty,” I said, hoping he would take the cue.
“Want me to get you something else? They’ve got wine, arak, kumis, probably some shit you’ve never heard of.”
“If I’m not thirsty, more liquor’s not going to do the trick, now is it?” I asked. I regretted my sharp tone, but not enough to alter it. I was at least able to get through to him, because Crane called over our hostess and laid his hand on her thigh as he asked for a refill. Her eyes flashed at him, but I watched her go and that same tight expression came over her just before she disappeared into the back room. I could feel that survival programming speaking from the back of my mind. Something was wrong here.
“Is it normally like this?” I asked. West stopped talking about Tom Petty and met my eyes for the first time that day.
“What do you mean?”
“Oasis. Is it normally so empty?”
Cowboy leaned back in his chair and worked his jaw around, as if chewing on the question. Then, he said, “Dunno. Never been here before sundown.”
“It’s gonna pick up eventually though, right?” Luther asked. Troubling and unpleasant ideas had a way of bouncing off Cadet Mensah, and I could tell that all he had in his brain at the moment were two and a half beers and a nightlife fantasy that reality could never live up to, even if my programming was off and everything was as it should be. He had, appropriately, chosen the least troubling and unpleasant branch of Aegis to focus on, and if he managed to maintain his passing grades, he would make a fine quartermaster in a year.
“Of course it’s gonna pick up. Just wait ’til it gets dark, brother. This place is gonna light up. Bombay and some of the other guys are meeting us at the Twins ’round 1900. They agreed to part with some personal items just for the privilege of losing to us at Texas hold ’em.”
“You are trying so hard to make that Cowboy thing stick, aren’t you?” Luther said.
“Hey, you can take America off the map, but you can’t take America outta my heart.” Nauseating. I still don’t know what drove West’s America fetish or his Cowboy persona, but I suspect he took his heritage far too seriously, and the wards at the Primary Center allowed him to watch too many Hollywood films as a child.
Abruptly, Crane grabbed the barmaid as she passed by and whispered something into her ear. She glanced at the drink levels around the room, then topped off Luther and Cowboy with a glass pitcher. Her expression was all granite and business – not the loving, free-spirited response I was led to expect. Like everything else about Oasis, the ready and willing young women seemed to be another chest-thumping exaggeration. But then, she bent over with a practiced motion and kissed Crane on the neck, right along the platinum blond hairline. She took him by the hand and led him to the stairs by the door, accompanied by the hoots and whistles of Lieutenant Cowboy. Crane looked back at me once with his piercing green eyes, and I expected them to be hard, or vindictive. I thought I knew why he’d grabbed the barmaid, but the look on his face was guilty, almost apologetic. He must have realized how petty this act seemed from my perspective, but just as I did nothing to change my bitter attitude, he did nothing to control his urges.
The look on his face didn’t help. I still felt sick. He ordered her as if he were ordering another drink. Was that how Oasis really functioned? Was it prostitution without payment? Or was there some sort of silent bargaining done behind the bedroom door? Perhaps the returning conquerors chose to omit that fact in their stories. Whatever it was, I felt my skin crawl at the thought of it. Luther glanced at me with concern, but he sensed a troubling idea in the air and allowed Cowboy to divert his attention again. In that moment, the sour stench of old beer became intolerable to me. Lieutenant West and Luther were alien creatures, joking in an unknowable tongue from lightyears away. I was stranded in my own head, and there was nowhere to go. I’d find no relief upstairs while Crane and the barmaid were conducting their business.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so miserable before in my life,” a lilting voice said behind me. “And I’ve been to Madagascar.”
I knew who it was by the youth in his voice, tinted by a slight Russian accent. I shifted around in my chair to look up at the man from the corner. Up close, he seemed entirely too clean, and I could smell a tangy fragrance on him that helped to even out the beer stench.
“You’ll go far, with a keen eye like that,” I said.
“Hopefully not as far as Madagascar. Once is enough for this lifetime.”
“Mind telling me who you are and what you want? In that order, please.”
He only smiled, as if he knew what I was about to say. “My keen eye tells me you’re not much of a drinker. I’m stepping outside for a smoke, and you can join me if you think it might make you less miserable. I’m Undersecretary Uriah Noskov, and I have a bad habit of mixing up orders. Sorry.”
He offered his hand. I didn’t take it. “This is why I asked for your name first. I’m allergic to secretaries.”
“I’ll wear gloves while we pass the pipe.”
“You won’t be passing me anything,” I said. I wanted to plant my boot on his all-knowing grin, but the Temple was driving me mad, and I knew I couldn’t stay there without enduring a round of questions from Luther and West. Besides, this was a creature that spoke my language, and even if he was an agent of Oculus, that made all the difference in my vulnerable state. “I could use some fresh air, though.”
“Ah, yes, Terekat’s most undervalued commodity,” Uriah said, backing up as I stood. “Nothing like fresh, dome-filtered air.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, but I followed him out of the pub without looking at my comrades. Their silence told me quite enough. Once outside, the Oculus agent turned away from the town square and circled around to the back of the pub. I paused to take in the square, hoping for clues to validate my anxious, trapped feeling. There were a handful of off-duty Aegis soldiers milling about by the buildings surrounding the open square, but I only saw two townspeople, and they were carrying baskets of wheat to the brewery. Reinforced crates with the Minervan owl and shield stamped on the side were scattered around a wooden stage in the middle of the square, as if the garrison staff had just gotten a new shipment of supplies and left them where they arrived. General Okane’s control tower jutted out of the far side of the square like an apple core, its curved steel sides rising all the way to the top of the dome. There was no activity in or around the mechanical hulk. Everything under that dome felt hollow and muted. Or perhaps it was just the dome I’d built around myself. I knew that my anxiety could be purely social. That, coupled with the exaggerated stories coloring my expectations, coupled with nearly twenty other variables, all led me to relax just a little bit. It also felt good to be rid of my classmates for a few moments.
I found Undersecretary Noskov in the alley behind the bar, already dragging on a long cherrywood pipe. The smoke curling around his soft, boyish face had an oily, iron tang to it.
“Travka,” he said, indicating his pipe. “Cannabis. The Glaucus botanists grow it in ridiculous quantities. Can’t smoke it in the main bunker. The regents would rather have us save the Earth than enjoy our vices, so we find dark corners and secret places to indulge in these things. That is the service Terekat provides to the people of Minerva. It is the release valve for our humanity. Would you like some?”
He held out the pipe, and I took a moment to consider whether he was referring to the drugs or his humanity. “Your lips have touched it, haven’t they?” I’d never had cannabis before, but I wasn’t about to start in the company of an Oculus agent. I had no intention of returning to the academy the next day for a spontaneous drug test and a court martial. “Allergic, mate.”
“Oh, to be born an undersecretary,” he said with a smile. “It’s a curse.”
I felt a nervous pang, and I suddenly became uncomfortable making small talk. To distract myself, I reached for the last thing on my mind. “Rather quiet here. Is it always like this?”
Uriah took a long drag and blew the smoke from his nostrils before responding. “Well, there were reports of a large raider band massing in the outzones, so the garrison commander sent a company out to deal with them. Plus, General Okane is visiting headquarters, and he’s taken a quarter of his staff with him. Things get quiet when the Khan isn’t here.”
“Why do they call him the Khan?”
“I expect because it’s in his name. Most people don’t end up in Aegis for their grand imaginations or crackling wit.”
“I thought they taught you manners at that posh school for Oculus bootlickers.”
“I did say most people. If you were one of them, I would have waited to insult you behind your back like a good boy.”
Another hit of nervous energy, and I decided to look at my boots instead of Uriah’s eyes. “You seem to know this place well enough. Do you come here often?”
“Never once,” he said.
I laughed, in spite of my determination to hate him. “So you know all of this because…”
“I talk to people. Sometimes politely. I also pay attention to the local network, which is something you could have been doing instead of moping with those trained attack dogs, so if you didn’t know about the raiders, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.” There was the condescending superiority complex I expected from a member of Minerva’s political branch. Hermann Brandt, the man who took my happiness away, had a similar way about him. It became much easier to hate Undersecretary Noskov then.
“Those attack dogs are my friends.”
“Then congratulations, you had me fooled. That’s not an easy thing.”
I said nothing, but I could feel my cheeks burning.
“You never told me your name, by the way. I know they don’t teach you manners at the kennel, but that’s just the basics.”
“Oh, now I’m a dog. Lovely.”
“No, you’re a human being who thinks she belongs with the dogs. I’d really like to know why, but first I’ll settle for your name.”
“Thalia,” I snapped. “I can spell it if you need to write it down in your report.”
“What makes you think I’m writing a report? I’m on vacation,” he said, still smiling. “Contrary to popular belief, Oculus agents don’t spy on people for fun. Besides, I know how to spell your name.”
I looked back at him, and as soon as our eyes connected, the wall between us exploded outward in a deafening blast. Brick chips and wood splinters scraped at my face, and I felt my meat robot programming take over instantly. I became numb to myself and hyperaware of everything else. Through the fist-sized hole in the wall, I could hear yelling from inside the Temple. I couldn’t place the language. Thumping, heavy footfalls. A table was struck, split open. Cowboy’s voice, yelling back at the others. Then, another gunshot that rattled my bones. A cry of pain, in Lieutenant West’s tones. I sank to the dirt, where Uriah was already crouched. His pipe was lying on the ground next to a pair of wooden cellar doors connected to the back of the pub.
Suddenly, gunshots rang out all around the dome, carried across the silvered sky. The screams didn’t carry quite so far, but I heard them, coming from everywhere at once. The ozone smell of gunfire leaked from the Temple, as did a slow, ragged breathing and a continuous stream of that strange language. It sounded almost like Kyrgyz, but even in my state of animal subconsciousness, I could tell that there was something different about it. Something wet touched my ear, and I glanced at the wall I was pressed against. Blood ran down from the bullet hole, chasing a crack along the wall. I inched away from the red line etching itself into the bricks and stopped when I reached the corner of the pub.
Glancing out from behind the wall, I could see dark forms rushing about the square. Their heads were wrapped in scarves, bandanas, and balaclavas, while their fingers were wrapped around pre-War assault rifles and handguns. Raiders. How? It struck me for the first time. How could they have possibly breached the dome so quickly? If Uriah was right, most of the garrison’s soldiers were away tracking down another raider band, but there were still twenty-odd guards around town, most of them patrolling the gates. I wouldn’t have believed it, and yet there it was, the most secure location outside Minerva’s main bunker coming apart at the seams.
I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I needed a better vantage point. There were two Minervan supply crates next to the pub, about five meters away. I kept my head low and darted out to them. Uriah squeaked in protest behind me, but he didn’t follow. Once I was tucked away behind the crates, I popped my head up to get another look. The raiders were marching General Okane’s staff out of the control tower with their hands behind their heads. Incredible. In an instant, they’d breached the dome and the control tower. The sound of gunfire began to ebb, and I realized the on-duty guards were most likely dead. The air inside the dome was getting quiet again, and that meant the resistance was already over.
Before I dropped back behind the crates, I thought I saw a raider look in my direction. I didn’t know for certain, but I began to panic. I couldn’t look again – if he had seen me, he would take my head off. If I tried to run, he would shoot me. If I stayed crouched behind the boxes, he would find me and shoot me. But if I was wrong, if he had looked right over me, I had to stay put. Anything else was certain death.
And then what? Sit behind these crates while the raiders slaughter my comrades and gut the town? I could only follow my survival programming. It’s the only thing in this world I can trust. But as I heard footsteps approaching the crates, I was sure my robot brain had found a situation that it couldn’t reason its way out of. The footsteps drew closer, and my fingernails bit into my palms as I clenched my fists.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of cloth, and I saw Uriah step out from behind the pub with his hands in the air. “Don’t shoot!” he said, then he repeated himself in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Arabic. I heard the raider yelling at him in their own language. “We’re unarmed.” Coward. I found a new way to hate Undersecretary Noskov then. He was trying to give me up, but I didn’t move.
“Ms. Gordon, bravery is a mental illness, but I have faith that you can overcome it. Unless you’d like this man to shoot you in the head, I suggest you do as I do.”
I shifted slowly on the balls of my feet, bracing myself against the crate, and when I’d turned around, I saw the raider standing over me, pointing the rusty barrel of a Kalashnikov rifle between my eyes. Up close, I could see that the black ghutra scarf he wore over his mouth was painted with a red eye, somewhat like a symmetrical Eye of Horus. This detail startled me moreso than the rifle aimed at my head. It had an artistry to it that seemed out of place amidst all the brutality.
Reluctantly, I raised my hands and stood up. Another raider left the square and helped the first shove us back toward the Temple. He had the same red eye over his mouth. It was strange, but something else was bothering me, something I couldn’t place. I thought it had to do with the eye, but then it occurred to me just as we reached the front door of the pub.
I’d never told Uriah my last name.
There is so much information to analyze in this account. Much of it builds on itself throughout the story, so I may save my major analyses until the end. I was very surprised to see Lieutenant West mentioned here. Despite working with him for years after these events, this is a chapter of his life he never spoke of.