My boots crunched onto a loose dirt floor, and I rushed immediately out of the light cast by the trapdoor above. It was difficult to tell how large the cellar under the Temple was, since the only light came from the kitchen and from a string of three rudimentary lightbulbs along the wall leading to the cellar door. On the far side of the room, there was only darkness. I sank back into it, staying low to the ground and watching the trapdoor. Footsteps were pounding the floorboards over my head, and as soon as they cut out, Uriah Noskov careened through the trapdoor. He landed badly, and his momentum carried him into a roll across the dirt. His head swiveled around, letting loose a few black locks over his forehead. I reached out my hand and beckoned him toward the darkness. He scrambled toward me on all fours, and as he did so, I backed up into a stone object. It wasn’t solid earth like the walls of the cellar. It was tall and roughly twice as wide as I was. I thought it was a column, and that gave me an idea.
I burst out of the darkness, running past Uriah and climbing the wooden steps leading to the cellar door. I threw the doors open wide and turned back to the dark side of the cellar. Uriah was crouched before a large stone statue, sitting crooked and half-excavated in the dirt. The remains of a waist-high stone wall extended toward me from behind the statue, and roughly ten wooden crates were placed around the ruins and the walls of the cellar. They were empty and hanging open, and they were almost long enough to comfortably fit a human inside.
I pointed to the crate closest to the ladder leading back into the pub, and Uriah understood me immediately, as if my thoughts had shrieked through the air to bury themselves in his head. He leapt into the crate and shut it quietly. I began flipping crates shut at random, but when I heard more footsteps rattling the foundation above me, I rushed over the stone wall and pressed my back to the statue. The light from the open doors had exposed the contents of the cellar, but it was still murky and dark near the far wall. I hoped that the shadows and the incongruous statue would protect me. Since I had no god to pray to, I just clutched my knife to my chest and began breathing through my nose.
There was a stomping of boots on the metal ladder, then a scuffing of dirt. I heard heavy breathing, and I thought I would vomit. The scuffing paused halfway across the cellar, then changed trajectory. I could feel the mass of the Owl Hunter with his silver Remington replica as he moved through the room, and I was sure he could feel mine as well. I had to focus all of my attention on breathing slowly and silently. I’d never had to concentrate so hard in my life. The man stopped before one of the crates I’d closed. If he leaned over, he could have seen me. I imagined the nose of his shotgun wavering at the edge of my peripheral vision, but I didn’t dare to do so much as turn my eyeballs around.
I heard a slam, and my knees buckled for just an instant. My coat scratched the surface of the statue, and I was sure that was it. I was dead. If I should be so lucky. The Owl Hunter’s boots swiveled away from the crate. I couldn’t tell which direction he was facing. I had to believe that if I just controlled my breathing, I would survive. Even if it wasn’t true, I had nothing else to believe in at the moment. Another slam, this time closer to the statue, and my heart nearly exploded from my ribs. I felt a silent tear escape my right eye, and in an insane moment of paranoia, I nearly wiped it away for fear that the light reflecting off it would give me away. But my concentration was breaking, and I needed to control my breathing. Silence was my God, and I’d suddenly become a firm believer.
Then, more footsteps from above. They creaked over wooden boards and scraped on metal rungs. I heard two voices yelling from the center of the room, one male and one female. The woman was upset, and although I couldn’t understand their particular form of Kyrgyz, my general understanding of human language told me she was berating our man with the shotgun. Within moments, I could feel a cluster of two or three bodies running for the open cellar doors. The footsteps died away in the distance, and the cellar was still once more. Praise be to Silence, our lord and savior.
Before the haze of dust could settle, I circled the statue and rapped on Uriah’s crate.
“Noskov, it’s clear,” I whispered.
The top of the crate swung open on oiled hinges, and the Oculus agent slipped out.
“Please call me Uriah. All the people who save me from certain death get the privilege of a first name basis.”
“Fine. We have to move.”
“Wait,” he said, pointing over my shoulder. I looked back and got a close look at the statue for the first time. The figure was feminine, mostly a cracked and featureless pillar with a gently sloping chest, but when I realized what was on its face, I was momentarily stunned.
Instead of a mouth, the face of the statue had a third eye. It was identical to the eyes painted on the Owl Hunters’ masks. So many questions began to flood my mind that I didn’t know which one to follow first, but I was spared the indecision when I made a sudden connection. The pub above us was called the Temple, and this looked very much like a ruined religious altar. But what religion? It had all the simplicity of an ancient icon, but the sculpture was too smooth, too new. There was the matter of the excavation, as well. This statue was clearly significant to the townspeople – significant enough to name their pub after it. Which came first, then? The pub or the altar? And why would the Owl Hunters adopt this iconography for their uniforms? It was clearly this, and not the eye on Minerva’s logo, that they were painting over their faces.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I whispered.
“We’ll worry about sense later. Now we can leave.”
Uriah ran to the stairs leading out of the cellar, but I grabbed him and pushed him behind me. I didn’t know what sort of combat training Oculus gave their agents at the diplomatic college, but I suspected it was less than what I’d received, even considering my undergraduate status. I lacked the brute strength of my male comrades, but I was a top-class knife fighter, and that thought infected me with the mental illness Uriah had called bravery. Besides, I told myself this was what Aegis was made for. I slipped rather easily into the role of the shield.
First, I thrust my head out of the cellar quickly, just to see where the Owl Hunters had gone and if the alleyway running along the edge of the town was clear. I didn’t see anyone, so I emerged from the cellar, rolling my feet and shifting my weight carefully. I still didn’t know where to find shelter from the Hunters, but I knew we had to get as far away from the town square as possible. I assumed there were three or four rows of houses between the Temple and the edge of the dome, but it was likely that the houses were still occupied, and I no longer trusted the townspeople.
The only option I really had was to sneak toward the dome, so I walked as silently as I could toward the nearest perpendicular alley. I kept my knife held in a reverse grip, and the little switchblade led the way. To my surprise, Uriah’s stealthy footsteps behind me were even quieter than my own. He certainly wasn’t just an ambassador’s assistant, and I highly doubted he was actually on holiday. There were too many strange variables in the Owl Hunters’ takeover, and among all these mysteries, Uriah Noskov seemed to fit right in.
The alley was empty, but it was also exposed to the insurgents in the square. I walked past the building across from the Temple, expecting it to be searched by our pursuers sooner or later. At the next intersection, which was a bit wider, I stopped to look up and down the street. In the distance to our right, I could see the brewery, and it was swarming with dark forms. They were preoccupied carrying crates and smaller, unidentifiable objects into the building. I knew we had to cross the street, but we would be exposed to the Hunters at the brewery. I tried desperately to think of a way across, or some other direction to go, but my meager training hadn’t prepared me for the uncertainty and the terror of such an overwhelming situation. No amount of field training exercises or seminars could have helped me then. This dead end had seemingly cured me of my bravery.
Then, Uriah hooked his arm through mine and stepped confidently out into the street. I looked at him in shock to find that he had wrapped his shemagh around his head, and I realized he was trying to emulate the Owl Hunters from a distance.
“Don’t worry about a scarf, I doubt they can tell a bald head from a clothed one at this range,” he whispered to me. “And start walking like you own the place.”
It was too late to do anything else. I straightened my back and began striding with purpose toward the house on the far end of the street, holding the knife at my side. We passed the house unnoticed, and just to be safe, we crossed the next alleyway to the house behind it before sneaking in through the back door. The room we found ourselves in was, fittingly, a lavatory. At least there was a wooden hatch covering the hole in the ground, though it did little for the stench.
“I can’t believe that worked,” I said, relaxing my taut muscles for the first time since we’d escaped the bedroom.
“It’s a simple trick I’ve picked up over the years. Act like you belong somewhere, and like anything, if you believe it strong enough, then everyone agrees with you.”
“It helps when you’re over a hundred meters away,” I added. Uriah smirked at this.
“You catch on quickly for a girl who thinks she’s one of the dogs, Thalia. Can I call you Thalia?”
“Don’t see why not. Now that you’ve saved my life and all that.”
“You’re too kind,” he said, turning to the door and pinching his nostrils shut. “Now before we plan our next move, let’s consider the facts, and let’s do it before we pass out.”
“Here’s a fact. That barmaid didn’t act at all like a woman under duress. I don’t think she was a hostage.”
“And?” Uriah asked. He was doing his one-or-three-steps-ahead bit again, and as irritating as it was, I was also glad for it this time. I needed someone who could think one or three steps ahead of everyone else. It was perhaps the only way we could make it through the day alive.
“And the Owl Hunters had already got hold of Cowboy’s shotgun by the time they’d entered the pub. That means someone on the inside supplied them.”
“Let’s not be coy about it. That was the bartender,” Uriah said.
“Right. Which means the townspeople aren’t just co-operating with the raiders. They planned this together.”
“There’s no other explanation. The Owl Hunters had to come from inside the dome. An ambush from outside is, as you put it, suicidal.”
“You think they were smuggled in through those crates in the cellar,” I said, trying to match steps with him. His raised eyebrow suggested that he was at least impressed with the attempt.
“Now when did I say that?”
“It was written all over your poncy face when you climbed out of the crate.”
“First of all, words are weapons, dear Thalia. They wound me. Second of all, you may not want to try and guess what I think. You’re not too good at it. The insurgents weren’t shipped here in crates, but their equipment was. The soldiers at the gates check their visitors thoroughly, especially if they’re decently pretty girls. However, they can be lax when it comes to cargo, as I witnessed earlier this morning. Considering the residue on the bottom of that crate, I’d say they were full of wheat and assault rifles.”
“So they came in disguised as visitors, then. That’s why so many of the Owl Hunters are women. The guards may have checked the girls, but I doubt they were looking in the right places.”
“That’s more like it! My thoughts exactly,” he said with a smile. “Now the question is why.”
“I don’t believe they’re interested in the terms that old bastard laid out in the square. Too risky. If all they wanted was food and water, they wouldn’t have to bargain for it. They could just take it from the villages in the outzones without all the fuss.”
“Yes. This is something else entirely,” Uriah said. “Something Minerva has never seen before.”
I let the concept sink in. If the townspeople had instigated this attack, they must have had a reason for it. Minerva kept them safe. We kept them comfortable and well-fed. I could hardly imagine the cause behind such a dangerous move. They only had their cover as hostages to protect them from General Okane’s retribution. What did they possibly want from us that could be worth the risk?
“Do you know what the statue under the pub was all about?” I asked Uriah.
“No, and that frustrates me endlessly. The insurgents and the townspeople obviously share a connection through that figure, but I don’t know what it means. I don’t even know what it was doing buried under the pub. If I had to guess – and I hate guessing, even though I’m pretty good at it – I’d say that statue belongs to some kind of new religion. It’s post-War, and neither of us recognize it, so I don’t see what else it could be.”
“I’d already figured as much,” I said, and I was disgusted with myself for smiling back at him. “Try to keep up, Noskov.”
Uriah had to suppress a laugh. Silence was still our god, after all. We’d just decided that nearly everyone in Oasis was out to get us, and we didn’t know for certain if the house we were borrowing was empty.
“I don’t suppose you’ll want to take a closer look at the brewery,” he said, showing lightning in his eyes.
“I don’t suppose I will. What do you hope to accomplish there?”
“We may find out what the Owl Hunters and the townspeople are really doing here. More importantly, we’ll definitely find a route to the control tower.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. I recalled that Uriah had been snooping around the Aegis roster as well. It didn’t surprise me that he knew a secret entrance to the control tower, but I was curious about his methods.
“I have a map of the outpost’s infrastructure on my tablet,” he answered. “There’s a maintenance entrance into the dome across from the brewery. From there, we can get through the air filters to one of the underground tunnels leading to the tower. We need to contact Minerva HQ once we have our facts straight, and that’s the place to do it.”
“There are too many of them at the tower. Can’t we get out through the dome?”
“Only at the main gates, which will be heavily guarded now that there are two prisoners on the loose. There’s a tunnel exit inside the emergency shelter, of course.”
“The shelter where the hostages are being held.”
“Which we can assume is the second most heavily guarded area in Terekat, after the main gates. I suspect the insurgents have already discovered the exit in the shelter, and they’ve taken steps to prevent the hostages from escaping through the back door.”
“May I ask what you’re doing with such a detailed map of an Aegis stronghold?”
“I told you, I’m on vacation. I didn’t want to get lost on the tour,” he said.
I knew I wouldn’t get anything else out of him if he didn’t offer it, so I dropped the subject. With a sort of plan in our heads, we snuck out of the house and circled around it to the open perimeter between the town and the edge of the dome. There were no Owl Hunters here, as they all seemed to be traveling from the square to the brewery and back. We crossed house after house, until we were next to the three story brewery. The chimney at the top was inactive, but I could still smell the warm, yeasty scent of beer in the air. All the activity was centered on the front of the building, and in the back there was only a waste bin and a pallet half-covered with a plastic tarp. We waited for the latest group of Hunters to pass, watching them through the windows in the house we were hiding behind, and as soon as they were out of sight we darted across to the back of the brewery.
The brewery had a line of glass windows just above our heads, and I stood on the pallet, carefully balancing myself on the exposed wooden edge to avoid rustling the tarp. The panes were dirty, and I was reluctant to clean them for fear of exposing myself. However, the window was cracked open at the bottom, so I eased it open just enough to see through the crack. Inside, I could see three stainless steel tanks, and the Owl Hunters were bent over several crates laid out on the brewery floor. They looked similar to the crates under the Temple, and the insurgents were filling the crates with bottles. I didn’t understand at first, but then a new group of Owl Hunters entered the room and I saw what they were doing. They were carrying Aegis military hardware, mostly reproduced pre-War firearms and explosives. The Hunters on the floor opened up new crates and began filling the bottom layer with equipment, clearly stolen from the main facility’s armory.
I stepped down to give Uriah a look at the brewery, and as he scanned the scene inside, I noted the small hatch built into the wall of the dome across from us. That was our escape route. It was a good fifteen meters away, but the insurgents were preoccupied with stashing their plunder in the beer crates, and I doubted they would notice us.
Then, my blood froze. I heard a voice echoing down the alley. It was speaking softly, but approaching fast. The maintenance hatch was too far away, and I couldn’t throw the waste bin open without attracting the Owl Hunters inside. I pressed myself against the corner of the building, holding my thumb against the top of the knife grip. This was the moment. I’d never killed before, but I’d seen death often enough to know what to expect.
I gauged the height of the speaker by his voice. I pictured his neck as I measured the steps until he would turn the corner. If there were only two of them, I could push the speaker into the second insurgent and catch them both before they could fire a shot or even, hopefully, call for help. The steps closed in, and just a sliver of black reached my peripheral vision. I pounced from the corner, pressing my thumb and the whole weight of my body into the handle of my knife. The blade sank in to the hilt, and the insurgent tumbled backward with me attached to his neck by a little black handle. We hit something, but it wasn’t another insurgent. I had no time to reflect on the kill. While I held my knife inside his gurgling throat, I looked up to see that the insurgent’s companion was a small boy, roughly eight or nine years old. He was collapsed against the house next to the brewery, and he stared at me with huge, uncomprehending eyes.
I looked back down at the insurgent and found that he wasn’t wearing a mask or body armor. He looked like a resident of the town, but he was holding a Minervan P90 submachine gun, and the boy clutched a pistol in his little hands. There was a dark stain on the child’s trousers, and I knew then that I had just killed a father taking his son outside to relieve himself. They had the same nose, and the same mouth. I was frozen with my knife buried in the boy’s same throat. I thought my familiarity with death would make the first kill easier, but not like this. I knew the exact emotional vortex opening up in that child’s mind. I knew because that child had been me. It seemed all my lives were destined to be bookended by dead fathers.
The child breathed in tiny, gasping shudders as he raised the pistol to my face. I didn’t move. My eyes were fixed on his, and the blood oozing between my fingers was beginning to ebb. I couldn’t change what I’d done – I couldn’t even create a new life to replace the one I’d taken – so I put my fate in his pudgy hands.
The gun clicked. I didn’t flinch. I was disappointed, for a moment. Then, Uriah grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me. My thoughts were overwritten by the meat robot programming, and I let go of my knife. The boy moaned, gradually getting louder and louder. Uriah ran for the maintenance hatch, but before I joined him, I pried the MP90 from the dead man’s fingers. I left my bloody knife in his neck, as I’d left my copy of Something Wicked in the pub. I felt like a molting reptile, shedding skin after skin and becoming harder and sharper every time. It was how I’d lived all along, only the Owl Hunters had accelerated the process. I didn’t know who or what I might be at the end of the day, if I managed to survive it.
Ah, it wasn’t the Oculus after all, it was the symbol of their religion. Such a fascinating human phenomenon, religion. Still, I doubt that religious differences would have been enough to provoke this kind of attack. There must be something deeper.
And yes, I am reporting my thoughts as I read, instead of retroactively after having finished reading. I’m trying to allow myself to sink into the narrative and experience it fully, to understand how those who read it on it’s initial publication experienced it.