I only caught a glimpse of the scene inside the Temple before the raider behind me thrust my head against a table, but in that glimpse I discovered the source of the blood that had dripped onto my ear. One of the retired officers was slumped against the wall with a swelling patch of red on his white undershirt, and his drinking partner was standing over him with senseless dead eyes. One raider had his weapon trained on the officer, and he was barking orders at him in modified Kyrgyz. I couldn’t see what sort of weapon he carried, or the fate of my own drinking partners, because I’d been bent over the table and all I could see, as the raider slung a thick rope around my wrists, was Uriah Noskov, bent over a table next to me for the same treatment. I did notice a voice that I recognized drowning out the raider’s shrill cries.
“Get your hands off him!” Luther screamed. “Fuck off! He’s bleeding out!”
Tensing all my muscles, I was able to shove my captor back far enough to get my head up, though he immediately slammed a rifle stock against my skull. My brain was beating with agony and adrenaline, but when they forced me down again, I angled myself toward Cadet Mensah’s voice. I could see him unwinding the shemagh around his neck while two raiders stood guard. He was crouched by the bar, and from my vantage point I could just see Lieutenant Mark West leaning back against the bar. His eyes were squeezed shut and his breath came out in arrhythmic gasps. I had known, of course, that Cowboy had been shot. Hearing it didn’t hurt quite the same as seeing it. I had to watch as he struggled to hold onto life, and I had to see that struggle play out on his tortured face.
When the ropes were tight, I was hauled to my feet and forced up the stairs. I tried to get a better look at Luther and Cowboy as I passed them, and I saw that the wound was in his upper left thigh. Blood was already soaking through his desert camo trousers, but Luther had secured his scarf around it to stanch the flow. With this done, the raiders were in the process of tying Cadet Mensah’s hands behind his back when I was shoved up to the second floor landing. Above the pub, there was only a narrow hallway lined with bedrooms, and the raider at my back threw me into the first door across from the stairs.
The room was sparse and unfurnished, except for a small bed pushed up against the left wall and a windowsill looking out on the town square to the right. The raider kicked me in the back of the knee as I stepped into the room, and I buckled under the pain. Undersecretary Noskov stumbled in after me, but he regained his footing and abruptly pushed backward against his captor. I thought it was panic, and that he’d try to make some fool attempt at escape, but when the raider grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him away, he became pliant and limp. He seemed to casually stroll over to the window, where he leaned his head against the wall and stared out the mesh patterns with that knowing smirk on his face. He was probably feeling the effects of the travka, but I couldn’t be certain.
“Do you know something I don’t?” I asked, walking to the back of the room and dropping to the floor. I was still dizzy from that crack on the head.
“That all depends. What do you know?” Uriah asked, still staring out the window.
“I know this town is all but impenetrable. I know there are only three ways in, and the raiders didn’t use them. The guards would have locked down the dome, or…at least we would have heard them coming.”
Uriah smirked at this. “Is that all?”
If my hands weren’t tied, I would have slapped him. “And I know I never told you my last name.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, his tone suddenly serious. “That was a slip. Of course, there’s only one woman on the Aegis roster named Thalia, so it was a safe deductive leap, but when I do that it tends to make people uncomfortable.”
How could he have possibly known the entire Aegis roster? And how could he recall that the woman on that roster named Thalia had adopted the surname Gordon? I would have asked him, but at that moment the door burst open again and two raiders carried Lieutenant West into the room. They laid him on the bed, then forced Luther and the surviving officer into the room as well. Luther was begging them for a first aid kit, but the raiders said nothing. Now that I was able to better look at them, I could see that they all had the stylized red eye on their masks, and some of them were equipped with kevlar armor over their baggy multicolored linens. New kevlar, not refuse scrounged from some abandoned military base. Most of their weapons were clearly scavenged, but the tallest of the raiders cradled a Minervan reproduction of the Remington 870 tactical shotgun. Judging by the bullet hole his weapon left in the wall, he was the one who had murdered the other officer in the pub.
Luther continued to scream at them, but the raiders turned away and filed out of the room. The lock clicked, and we were trapped. The reek of sweat and blood settled over us, and with it came a nauseating silence, punctuated only by Cowboy’s ragged breathing. It was Uriah, of course, who broke the silence.
“At least half of them are women,” he murmured.
“What?” Luther asked, blinking away sweat and turning away from the door. Uriah was still leaning his head against the wall, and little flourishes of light patterned his boyish face from the arabesque window mesh.
“Doesn’t that seem strange to you? What desert tribe would jeopardize their future like that just to raid a town as heavily fortified as Terekat?”
“How do you know they’re women?”
“Three of our captors are shorter than five feet five inches, and those same captors didn’t speak. Only the taller two spoke.”
At that, I realized why Uriah had thrown himself against the raider when he’d been led into the room.
“What if they’re short guys who don’t talk much?” Luther asked.
“My thoughts exactly, sir.” Uriah finally turned to address the room, clasping his hands together as he did so. “That was why I pushed back against one of the raiders on my way in. If that was a man, then maybe you soldiers of Aegis can explain why he was carrying two large grenades strapped to his chest.”
There was a moment of silence as Luther digested the implication of this. The retired officer was sitting on the floor in the corner with the same dead stare that I’d seen on him earlier. His mind looked like it was lost in another time and place.
“Okay. Why would – ” Luther began, but Uriah cut him off.
“So glad you’ve caught up. Why indeed. I don’t know. It speaks of desperation, but a desperate attack on Terekat would be suicide. This was meticulously planned. I suspect the gathering in the town square might tell us something, so if you’d like to watch, you’re welcome to join me.”
Luther scoffed and made no move to oblige him. With some difficulty, I managed to get to my feet again. I approached the window, and when I was at the mesh grate, I leaned in close to Uriah’s ear. He still smelled tangy and clean, in spite of the sweat beading his brow.
“Are you going to tell them who you are or why you’ve got the Aegis roster memorized?” I whispered.
“Fifi is struggling just to grasp the current situation. Let’s not complicate things for him,” he said.
“Only to military drones and the terminally stupid.”
I glanced over my shoulder, but Luther was tending to Cowboy on the bed. I was actually proud of him for keeping himself together, as the Luther Mensah I knew was so afraid of stress and responsibility that he once chose to skip a military history final because he hadn’t studied for it. He’d never been tested like this, though. None of us had. The raiders were already starting to bring out our true natures.
Once I was satisfied that Luther hadn’t heard Uriah’s remarks, I began to take in the scene in the town square. There was a crowd of roughly twenty Minervan personnel kneeling in the dirt behind the wooden stage at the center of the clearing. All around them, raiders were evenly positioned and aiming their weapons at the crowd. None of them were soldiers on leave, according to their tidy uniforms. I assumed they were the General’s reserve staff, left behind to run the town from their state-of-the-art control tower. One man was kneeling up on the stage, with a pair of raiders on either side of him. His uniform, and specifically the metal attached to it, told me high-ranking Aegis officer.
“That’s Commander Harker,” Uriah said, as if reading my mind. “General Okane’s second. He’s in charge of the outpost while the Khan is away. Sadly, they don’t have a matching nickname for him.”
Standing across the stage from Commander Harker was a raider holding up a tablet, apparently recording the scene. There was a surreal stillness in the square, especially juxtaposed against the savage attack I’d witnessed there only ten minutes ago. They seemed to be waiting for something. Then, the raiders guarding the far side of the square parted, and a massive figure in a panther-colored robe hovered past them, walking so steadily that it was hard to tell if his feet were even touching the ground. His head was exposed, and I could see a long, thin neck with a birdlike bald head perched atop it. His white beard hung down to his waist, a dirty cascading nimbus that nearly covered the front of his robe. He looked like some sort of priest, or more accurately, a ghost of a priest.
The old man floated past the control tower staff and ascended the stage, coming to a stop behind Commander Harker.
“Who’s that, then?” I asked Uriah. “You seem to know everyone and everything else.”
“If only that were true,” he murmured. “But thank you for the compliment.”
The death-like priest then lifted his left arm, and a skeletal fist clutching a small device was raised to his mouth. I couldn’t see it from the second floor window of the Temple, but I learned rather quickly that he had a microphone in his hand patched into the town’s PA system.
“It is said among certain tribes that the owl is a bringer of destruction,” the old man whispered, and his voice boomed across the town, reverberating throughout the dome like soft thunder. “The Amah-Khalil say that the owl landing on your roof means death for your children. The Toukhal say that the owl eats the souls of the unavenged. My tribe says that the owl foretells a bloody battle, and I know that this is true. I know that everything they say about the owl is true. I have seen it with my own eyes, and it haunts me in my most violent dreams.”
The old man turned up to the control tower then, and the raider with the tablet panned up with him to frame the giant Minervan owl emblazoned on its side. “I am Ra’Doman Aibek Bakiyev, and my people are the Domani Khel-Duna. The Owl Hunters.”
“Bloody hell,” I muttered. I already knew that this wasn’t a normal band of raiders, but I couldn’t have comprehended how personal their agenda was until that moment. They weren’t here to steal our supplies. They were here to hunt. Suddenly, the eye over their mouths made sense. It was the eye on the Aegis held by the owl in Minerva’s own logo. I was convinced that it was some sort of parody, though the meaning escaped me at the moment.
“We have reclaimed Terekat from the owls,” Bakiyev continued. “In our captivity, we have twenty from the tower, forty-five from the town, and three from the gates. In addition, we have over one hundred townspeople as our hostages. If you want us to leave them alive, we need supplies for our people. We need five water trucks, five thousand gallons each. We need five trucks for rations. These will be tested on our hostages before we accept them. We need ten more trucks to carry our people. You will deliver them to us in twenty four hours, or we kill everyone. We have closed the gates, and your cage is locked. If you try to force entry, we kill everyone. Unless you want to bring destruction to Terekat, you will do as we say.
We will make you vomit up the souls of the unavenged, and then we will avenge them. We will destroy the destroyers. Like so.” At that, Bakiyev lowered his left arm and raised his right. He was holding a pistol in his bony fingers, and I heard a gasp from behind me. Luther had wandered over when the tribal leader’s announcement began. Bakiyev pressed the pistol against the back of Commander Harker’s neck and fired, splattering blood at the cameraman’s feet. Harker pitched forward, catching himself and remaining on hands and knees while blood poured from his ruined throat. His body shuddered and spasmed as he tried to suck air down a broken windpipe, and Bakiyev watched him tremble with unflinching dark eyes. I was sure then that none of us would leave the dome alive, whether Minervan HQ satisfied the Owl Hunters’ demands or not.
“This is a personal invitation to General Okane,” the old man said, facing the camera again. “Come to see your mighty silver cage. But do not land on your own roof if you want to see the rest of your children alive tomorrow.”
Ra’Doman Bakiyev cleared his throat, and the guttural sound was caught by the dome’s PA system. Then, he spat on Commander Harker, who was lying still on the bloody stage. The cameraman lowered his tablet, and Bakiyev motioned to the other Owl Hunters. They began rounding up the control tower staff and leading them back to the tower entrance. Commander Harker was left behind, possibly as a warning or a reminder to the rest of us.
“Well, that doesn’t give us much time,” Uriah said.
“We have twenty four hours,” I replied tersely.
“Until they slaughter us? Yes. But we have a much shorter time window if we want to escape.”
“I can’t say I share your optimism, Mr. Noskov,” I said.
“Not optimism. Logic. Do you know why they put all of us in the same room?”
“Because they’re amateurs?” Luther suggested.
“Down boy,” Uriah snapped.
“Hey, fuck you,” he growled, looming over the Oculus agent.
“Stay. I was asking Ms. Gordon.”
I considered my answers carefully, not wanting to be made a fool of like Luther and finding it strange that I cared so much about what a condescending Oculus agent thought of me. “Because they don’t have the numbers to guard separate rooms. Not at the moment. The raiders who put us here must have gone back outside to handle the General’s staff.”
“And they don’t intend to keep us here long. Once they lock up the others, they’ll likely come back for us.”
“If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll all end up sealed in the underground shelter beneath the control tower within ten minutes.”
“Thali, who the hell is this guy?” Luther asked, backing away and turning his glare to me. I had never noticed it before, but he did have a sort of bulldog’s face when angered. I don’t know if this was an effect of Uriah’s constant jabs or if I had just never seen Luther angry before.
“Uriah Noskov. I’d shake your hand, but we’d both have to turn around and it would look extremely silly,” he said. Luther was about to retort, but our heads all swiveled toward the door as we heard footsteps coming up the wooden staircase. The lock turned, and the barmaid pushed the door open, carrying a small Minervan first aid kit in her other hand. Our guard, the tall Hunter with the Remington, stood in the doorway with his shotgun at the ready.
The girl knelt by the bed and opened the kit, while Cowboy turned and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you kindly, sister,” he murmured. She said nothing, maintaining that same stoic, businesslike expression she’d adopted when Crane requested her services. I thought it was strange that she showed no fear, no hesitation. The panicked energy had all but vanished, and this was with a shotgun pointed at her back.
She unwrapped Luther’s makeshift tourniquet, sterilized the wound, and wrapped it again with clean gauze. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Steven Crane. Only two gunshots had come from the Temple – one for Cowboy, and one for the dead officer.
“Excuse me,” I said, speaking in Kyrgyz. I knelt down next to her as she removed a bottle of painkillers from the kit. “What happened to the man you were with? The man with the blond hair?”
The barmaid said nothing. She merely placed the painkillers on the side of the bed, packed up her kit, and left. The Owl Hunter guarding us locked the door behind her.
“Shit,” Luther hissed, thumping his head on the wall. “She was with Steve. If they got her, they got him. Since you know it all, where do you think they’re keeping him, smartass?” This last bit was directed, of course, at Uriah.
“Well, they didn’t shoot him. They probably slit his throat and left him in the bedroom.”
Luther lunged at the Oculus agent, but I forced my way between them.
“We don’t have time for this,” I said. “Both of you need to get your shit together. We have a way out, but we need to work together.”
“We do?” Luther asked.
“Yes. Lieutenant West?”
Cowboy raised his head from the pillow. “Something I can do?”
“Perhaps. Can you reach under the bed for me and pull out my bag?”
I’d noticed our bags tucked under the bed when I knelt to speak to the barmaid. That was our way out, or something like it.
“If you packed a weapon, I’ll bet you fifty creds they took it. The new bouncer at the door is carrying my shotgun,” Cowboy said. As he spoke, he shifted upright and, with a grimace of pain, reached down for a bag strap. He managed to pull out the bag labeled T. Gordon.
“There should be a book in the side pocket,” I said. “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
“Uh…huh,” Cowboy said, clearly unconvinced that a book had anything to do with our way out. I glanced back at Uriah, and his eyes were flashing with excitement. As much as he enjoyed being one or three steps ahead of everyone else, it seemed he enjoyed being one step behind even more. It was possibly a new experience for him. Lieutenant West soon found the book, which I’d discovered several lifetimes ago while wandering the British Isles. I couldn’t read then, and I’d torn out over half of the pages to use as sanitary paper. When I discovered Gordon’s Library, I learned its true value, and my second father and I both became enthralled with it. It was a shared love through which we very nearly came to love each other. I’d imagined him as Charles Halloway, the janitor of a small town library, and myself as his son William. When Julius Gordon destroyed the library and left me alone, I associated myself with this happy familial structure less and less. Now, in the sober light of reality, I can see that I was never the naïve and innocent Will, but rather his friend, Jim Nightshade. The boy who looked at the world and could not look away, who at thirteen years old had done twenty for taking in the laundry of the human race.
At twenty, how many years have I done? How do I measure the knowledge and the pain I have experienced? That ravaged, yellowing thing offered no answers, but still, it was a part of me. I could no sooner throw it away than cut off my good right hand. Minerva already had a complete copy of the book in the Archives, so, in order to justify keeping it, I adapted it to my new life. I made it the sort of book that Jim Nightshade would carry.
“Open it,” I said. Cowboy turned the brittle cover and found, taped to the spine where the missing pages once resided, a thin black switchblade. “You wouldn’t happen to have those fifty credits on hand, would you?” He whistled in appreciation and popped the knife out. I turned my back, and he swiftly cut through the rope around my wrists. I took the knife from him and did the same for Uriah. When I turned to cut Luther free, he backed away.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Cowboy can’t move like this, and there’s no way in hell I’m leaving him alone with these animals.”
“Luther, you son of a bitch,” Cowboy said, wincing as he eased himself back on the bed. “You will leave your useless commanding officer behind, and that’s an order.”
“Sorry, sir. You can court martial my ass when we get home.”
I was busy cutting the veteran’s restraints, identified by his jacket as Major H. Eriksson. He still had a faraway look, and his arms were limp even after they were free of the rope. I stood up again, and turned back to the others. Both Luther and Uriah were staring at me.
“So what’s your plan, Thali?”
“We can’t leave through the front. The square is full of them. I saw a cellar door behind the pub, and we should be able to get to the cellar through the back room. From there…” I didn’t know where to go from there.
“We worry about that later,” Uriah cut in. “Time’s wasting, and we still have the big mudak at the door to get through.”
“Leave him to me,” Major Eriksson said. We all turned to him, and he was now standing with his mind firmly in the present.
“I don’t think so, sir,” Luther replied. “We’re not sacrificing anybody today.”
“You’ll learn, cadet. Some days, you have to make sacrifices.”
“But if there’s only one of them – ”
“Listen. My drinking buddy and I, we’ve been around since before Aegis even existed. We were just dumb kids trying to put the world back together, kinda like your friend here. He promised me, with the kind of life we were living, we wouldn’t grow old together. Now he didn’t want to admit it, but that’s exactly what we did. I can’t think of a greater victory than that.”
“Sir – ” Luther cut in, but Major Eriksson held up his hand to cut him off again.
“Besides, I hate to drink alone.” With that, the major turned and rammed his shoulder into the door. The wood buckled, and there was a shuffling of boots on the other side. Major Eriksson charged the door again. All my muscles tensed, and I gripped the handle of my blade so tight my fingers began to turn numb.
“Find Steve,” I heard Luther say from some interminable distance behind me. “Find him and get the fuck out of here.”
Before the major could ram the door again, it flew open and the Owl Hunter began screaming at us. Major Eriksson ignored him, and he ignored the Remington pointed at his gut. He ran at the Hunter, and the man fired, blasting a fine mist of blood into my face. I quickly wiped the hot, earthy fluid from my eyes to find that Major Eriksson had thrown himself at our captor and pinned him to the floor. This was our only chance. I took off at a sprint, leaping over the Owl Hunter and the major and flying down the stairs four at a time. I didn’t look to see if the Hunters in the square were on their way. I didn’t look to see if Uriah was following me. I just ran, skirted the tables, hopped the bar, gripped the open doorway, and swung myself into the back room.
There was a kitchen, I remember that much. Everything else was an adrenaline blur. Footsteps behind me, but I didn’t know if it was Uriah or an Owl Hunter. I saw a trap door in the corner, and it was hanging wide open. There was darkness inside. Perhaps safety. I ran for it, leapt for the darkness with no thought as to what might be inside or how deep it might go.
The power of symbols on the human psyche always puzzles me. These “Owl Hunters” focused on the owl, the Glaucus in the Minervan logo, as the symbol of their hatred, and then adopted the eye of Oculus as their own symbol on their masks? I understand that people are prone to place undue significance on visual symbols, but I am unsure what they intended with these choices.