The chase is still a blur to me. I remember diving into the dark and humming insides of the dome, submerging in machinery as my thoughts had submerged into the binary survival code. There were quite a few stairs, and tiered catwalks rising up between the bronze gills of the air filtration system. The voices of our pursuers, and even the rap of their stolen firearms, were muted by the strange acoustics of the maintenance block and the buzz of ultraviolet particle separators around us. The encroaching desert hung in the air like an orange mist, sticking in our lungs and weighing down our every pounding step.
My programming told me to follow Uriah. He drove us deeper into the dome, down twisting stairways and across caution-striped walkways, until we came to a heavy door in the wall. Uriah punched a code into the keypad, and the door slid upward for a moment. We ducked inside, and the door shut behind us. Uriah turned to the keypad on the other side of the door, and with a few deft finger strokes, the display on the pad turned red and I heard a heavy emergency lock slide into place. As it did so, I felt myself returning. I saw the child’s face again, staring at me without seeing from the far end of a gunsight. I noticed that the blood caking my hands had begun to harden around the grip of the MP90 I’d taken from the boy’s father. Involuntarily, I let out a small whimper.
Uriah’s taut features softened, and there was a reflection of my own pain there. But what did he know? He hadn’t plunged the knife in. He hadn’t orphaned a child.
“Thalia, I don’t…” he trailed off, finally at a loss for words. I knew I couldn’t express what I felt. If I had tried, it would have come out as a barbaric howl, a monstrous mixture of agony and triumph. It was a sensation that I couldn’t have put into words then, and as it turns out, I can’t manage it now. But we were both spared the inadequacies of our language when the Owl Hunters caught up to the door and began slamming into it from the other side.
“They won’t be getting in,” Uriah said. There was a rattle of gunfire. “Not anytime soon. But we’d better go.”
I nodded, though I was barely able to move my head for the knot in my throat that wanted to unwind itself into a scream. Uriah took the lead once again, walking softly down the long, claustrophobic hallway we found ourselves in. It was too narrow to comfortably fit two side by side, as the town’s plumbing seemed to be running through the underground passageway all around us. The end of the tunnel was so far away that all I could see was a dark haze. For a time, we walked in silence, and I busied myself checking over my shoulder to see if the Owl Hunters had broken through the door. After several minutes, we could no longer hear them banging on it. The knot in my throat slowly slithered back down to a deeper place inside myself.
“I have to ask,” Uriah began. “What were you doing with a book in your bag? There aren’t many of those left in the world.”
“I found it,” I said. My voice came out quick and flinty.
“Certainly not on a bookshelf. How long did you live in the old world before Minerva found you?”
My back stiffened. It seems so trivial to me now, but at the time I didn’t like to let on that I was born in the old world. In spite of this, he’d pieced it together almost immediately. It was the certainty with which he spoke that bothered me most of all, as if he were so sure of his powers of deduction that he didn’t even entertain the possibility that he could be wrong.
“What do you care?” I asked. “Bet you lived all your life in a bunker.”
“Trying to read me again? I’m flattered, as usual, but you’re wrong. I was born in a village in the Ural mountains, near the southern foothills where the bombing was light.”
I was walking behind him, on his right side, but I had the urge to see his face then. I wanted to know if I could see the old world etched there. It always leaves some sort of mark. I thought I could spot them right away, but Uriah hid his scars well, as he hid everything else about himself.
“I was a child, I don’t know how old…”
“Funny, isn’t it, how time just doesn’t seem to exist out there?” I interjected.
“Without calendars, or watches, or birthdays,” Uriah said wistfully. The shared experience had jolted me with excitement, but I immediately felt self-conscious.
“Sorry. You were saying?”
“No, I’ve always thought that was interesting. It’s all one sort of continuous moment unless we break it up into numbers and words. We’ve coded time into our language, and outside of that it’s as endless and free as the air we breathe.” He looked back at me, and I forgot to check his face for the old world residue. His eyes were softer and more vulnerable than I’d ever seen them. “I’ve never met anyone who’s noticed that before. It’s refreshing, to talk about this thing with someone.”
“Frustrating, isn’t it? That nobody sees the world the way you do. Like you’re a foreigner, no matter where you go.”
“Like a girl among the dogs,” he said. “Or a boy among the snakes.”
Uriah looked down at my bloody hands and jacket, then up over my shoulder. Once he was convinced that the Owl Hunters were still stuck behind the door, he put his hand on my hip and stopped me. I felt a stinging rush of energy at his touch, and that familiar panic. I couldn’t give him what I knew he wanted, nor could I give it to myself. Besides, I knew what happened to people who got too close to me.
“We need a rest,” he said, releasing my hip and pulling a canteen out of his coat. “And I think you got something on your hands.”
We sat across from each other, staggered slightly so we could both fit in the tight corridor. Uriah let his legs stretch out next to me, and I crossed mine. I’d taken off my blood-soaked jacket and set the machine gun down on top of it. As Uriah spoke, I poured water over my hands and rubbed at the blood caked to my fingers.
“When I was a child, our village was occupied by a local warlord named Rurik,” he said. “I’ll spare you his nickname. He killed both of my parents during the attack, but that was their choice. This man was a slaver, not a murderer, and my mother and father would not be slaves. I had a sister, and mother tried to kill us both before the slavers got to us, but we didn’t understand and we ran from her.”
My first father flashed through my mind, clutching his bloody trowel. “Do you think she was doing the right thing?”
“I think she thought so,” Uriah replied. “Personally, I don’t believe there ever was a right thing. The slavers got us, of course. Rurik liked me, but he didn’t like my sister as much. I was his personal slave for a long time. He threatened to kill me when he got bored of me, but I made sure to always be useful. To him, and to the rest of his tribe. I learned a lot about human weakness there.”
“You were a slave. I can only imagine…”
“Not my weakness. Theirs. For instance, there was a slaver named Oleg who was one of those rare individuals with no apparent sex drive. All he cared about in life was eating, sleeping, and hunting. The others gave him hell for this, so I made him a deal. I would sleep in his tent some nights and make suggestive noises, and in exchange he would protect me and my interests. Sometimes I would even limp out of his tent the next morning with goat’s blood smeared on my pants.”
This admission took me by surprise, and I couldn’t help a sudden fit of laughter. “That’s disgusting.”
“And yet you laugh.”
“Because I’m a sick fuck. And so are you.”
“I had to take my relief wherever I could find it. If that meant rubbing goat’s blood on my ass, then that’s what I did. It’s a delicate art, though not very glamorous, to get what you want from someone while assuring them that they are in total control. This skill is essential for an agent of Oculus, and it was a boon to my career that I picked it up so early.”
“And your sister?”
“Hated me,” Uriah said, and the laughter faded from his voice. “Along with the rest of the slaves. They saw me as a traitor and a sycophant, even as I worked behind the scenes to keep them alive. My sister believed that Minerva would find us and save us. Our village had hosted two Minervan expeditions in the past, but there was no way to know when they would return. She got impatient. She said she would go looking for them. She tried to escape the village, but the slavers caught her, and I did everything I…”
Uriah sharply turned his head away from me, and that was the last time he ever mentioned his sister. I took a swig from the canteen and held it out to him. It took a moment for him to come back to me, but he grabbed the canteen from my rusted hands and gulped down some water.
“How did you get away?”
“I didn’t. Minerva actually came back to our village, eventually. The leader of the expedition was First Secretary Dien Truong.”
“You mean Dien Truong, Minister of Diplomacy?”
“Well, when I first met him, he was a few steps down the ladder. He negotiated the release of my entire village. Rurik was a sensible animal, after all. But I had done too good a job at being useful, and he refused to give me up. Secretary Truong had to try a different negotiation strategy that Rurik, unfortunately, didn’t survive. When he asked me why I was so special to the old slaver, I told him I was good with people.”
“Right answer,” I scoffed. “Did you know who you were talking to?”
“I knew enough to know what to say, which is often all I need. I didn’t know I would be working as Truong’s aide in fifteen years.”
“Why does Minister Truong have you sneaking about Oasis, then?” I asked, keeping my voice level. “And if you say you’re on holiday one more time, I’ll kick you in the face.”
Uriah smiled, replacing his canteen in his jacket. “I can’t tell you. I just have to show you.”
“Show me what?” I asked. “Show me why a citizen under our protection would steal weapons from Minerva to arm his children?”
Uriah said nothing. Instead, he pulled his legs in and bent his knees.
“Did you know this attack was coming?”
“I think I would have planned my visit a little more carefully if I had,” he said softly.
“I’d like to trust you, Uriah…but I can’t, unless you tell me what you’re up to.”
“I don’t need you to trust me. I just need you to keep me alive.” The tenderness in his eyes sealed up again, waxed over by that slightly bemused expression he seemed to wear like a mask. He’d laid his scars open, and I realized too late that I’d missed my chance to reciprocate. In hiding from my own past, I’d all but ignored the significance of his own. Guilt struck me in the chest and left a vacuum in its wake, but I told myself that everything he’d said was probably a lie. He was an agent of Oculus, after all. He was a Hermann Brandt in training. I owed him nothing.
Uriah stood up and offered his hand, but I didn’t take it. I grabbed the MP90 and my bloody jacket, slinging the jacket over my shoulder and cradling the machine gun in my bare arms. We looked back one more time to make sure the tunnel was still clear, and then we continued on toward the center of the town. At one point, we reached an intersection where a perpendicular tunnel ran around the diameter of the town. I left my jacket hanging off a pipe leading off to the right, hoping it might throw off the Owl Hunters if they managed to find their way this far into the tunnel network. Another layer of molted skin left behind me.
As we walked along the tunnel leading straight to the control tower, I wondered what the Owl Hunters’ endgame plan could possibly entail. Were they really just trying to smuggle Minervan weapons and equipment out of the town in beer crates? How did the insurgents intend to escape with their lives? I doubted General Okane would set such a deadly precedent. They could have been planning to remove their masks and blend in with the townspeople, but that would put the residents of Terekat under even greater scrutiny, and would likely get them all killed. And above all, there was that massive why lording over the whole affair.
I couldn’t talk to Uriah about it. Not anymore. I couldn’t even believe the story he’d just told me, but I sincerely wanted to. That was the most dangerous part about him. I wanted to trust him, even though he was clearly a key thread in the conspiracy unwinding around me. Even though I knew it would hurt.
By the time we reached the end of the tunnel, the sewer stench and choking dust had subsided, and the smell of machine oil overtook our senses. The door at the end was identical to the one inside the dome, but it opened up to reveal a maintenance bay lined with shelves and plastic bins containing spare parts. The metal walls were clean and gunmetal gray, and the floor was only lightly scuffed. It was a reminder that General Okane’s outpost was brand new on the grand stage of human civilization – less than two years old, according to my research. With nothing worth stealing in the bay, all was quiet as we stepped inside the control tower.
“They’ll be using the main elevators to raid the armory,” Uriah whispered, pulling out his tablet. “We need to get to the satellite uplink, and fortunately for us, the auxiliary elevators can take us there.”
He switched to a holographic display, and a three-dimensional map of the underground complex leapt from the tablet. I could see the three main lifts in the center of the map, and there was a massive room to the right of the lifts that I assumed to be the shelter that Uriah mentioned. With any luck, our comrades – the real hostages – were still alive in there.
“What’s this?” I asked, running my index finger over a series of blocks between us and the nearest auxiliary lift.
“Glaucus research labs.”
“Believe it or not, I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe it. Will you at least tell me if there’s anything the Owl Hunters might want to steal from the labs?”
“You really don’t trust me at all,” Uriah said, and the hurt in his voice had a mocking edge. “This goes beyond the typical petty rivalry between the branches. You’ve got some special hatred for Oculus.”
“Did you ever consider the possibility that I just don’t like you?”
“I would, except for the way your face changed when you found out I was a diplomatic aide.”
I didn’t have a reply for this. Personal insults were my self-defense mechanism of choice, and they usually worked, but Uriah had a gift for deflecting them.
“Let’s just assume that the second we step out of this room, we could run into the Owl Hunters around any corner and die very painfully.”
“So be it,” I said. With that, I knew our moment of respite had ended. We were alone and infiltrating the Owl Hunters’ base of operations, armed only with a single firearm in the hands of an untested Aegis cadet. The fear and intense pressure that came with this knowledge squeezed at my bowels. Not just our survival, but the survival of Cowboy, Luther, and all the other hostages rested on my shoulders, and the closest I’d ever come to a firefight were the bi-annual field training exercises we’d undergone at AOA.
At least I’d trained with the Minervan FN P90. It was one of Aegis’ primary weapons, rebuilt in mass quantities due to its simple, compact, ambidextrous design. I unlocked the translucent magazine and checked my ammo. Sixty rounds, improved by Glaucus engineers from the original fifty. I slid the magazine back into the top mount and cocked the first round into the chamber. I wasn’t ready – not even close – but it would have to do.
We crossed the maintenance bay and I eased the door open a crack, listening first for voices or footfalls. The hall outside was quiet, so I stuck my head out, and then my entire body. The corridor was composed of polished metal walls and laminated white flooring. A rush of cold, antiseptic air enveloped us, and I had to blink away the glare of the rounded fluorescent fixtures that ran like ribs across the ceiling. The corridor continued straight, leading toward the main lift ring, but there was a hallway to our left that ran through the research labs. I approached the corner quietly, listening for hostiles. To my dismay, I could hear voices echoing down the corridor from the labs. Slowly, I peeked around the corner, then immediately pulled my head back. I hadn’t forgotten the time I’d been spotted during the initial attack.
From the blurred glimpse I caught of the hallway, there were three or four people walking away from us. Most of them wore balaclavas, but one head was uncovered. I looked again, and this time I could clearly see that there were four figures, three Owl Hunters and one balding man in a Glaucus lab coat with his hands resting on the back of his head. He was apparently giving them a tour of the facility. They were too far away to pick off from a distance without risking the researcher’s life, so I watched and waited until they stopped at a door at the far end of the corridor. The Glaucus researcher punched a code into the door, and all four of them stepped inside. I motioned to Uriah, whose face was uncharacteristically severe, and together we turned the corner, keeping low and rolling our feet on the smooth laminate.
Further down the hall, the metal walls were interrupted by windows looking in on various lab modules. I couldn’t see inside them from our crouched position, and I hoped fervently that there weren’t insurgents already in the other labs. I knew we had reached the right lab when I heard voices coming through the grille around the window right over our heads. They sounded distant enough, so I risked a look through the window. Two of the Owl Hunters were interrogating the Glaucus researcher in front of a shelf filled with machine parts and files. I saw movement through the shelf, and assumed the third insurgent was on the other side. I lowered myself and ran over my training.
I’d practiced advancing on multiple targets, and I’d even done it with the MP90. The trick was to stay slow and controlled, with brief trigger pulls to minimize recoil. The MP90’s 5.7x28mm rounds were designed to stick in their targets, so as long as I maintained control and aimed carefully, I wouldn’t have to worry about the hostage. Sounds quite nice in writing. It sounded nice in my head as well, but even then, I knew how simple it was to maintain control in a controlled environment, and this was far from it. I couldn’t expect the Owl Hunters to co-operate as well as the cardboard outlines at the firing range.
I knew that the longer I waited, the more my nerve might falter. I could feel it slipping already. Pressing the stock of the MP90 tight against my shoulder, I inched up to the open doorway. I made sure the sight was in line, and then I swung out from behind the wall. My sights met a masked form. Quick trigger pull, muted rattle. I jerked the weapon over to the second form, neither slow nor controlled. Quick trigger pull, muted rattle followed by the ping of metal on metal. The second Owl Hunter turned around, raising his or her assault rifle, but I adjusted my aim and fired a spray that took the insurgent in the chest.
Suddenly, bullets erupted from the other side of the shelf. I had been too sloppy. The last Owl Hunter was firing through the shelves, and I frantically dove under the workstation below the shelves. The researcher had already done the same. He was curled up and clutching his hands to his ears, surrounded on either side by dead Owl Hunters. I was sure we would soon join them. The third Hunter was circling the shelves, and I knew I couldn’t drop him in time.
Then there was a loud impact from outside the lab, and I looked up to see Uriah standing at the window. He was reaching into his coat, but as he did so, the Owl Hunter opened fire on him. My gut clenched, and I knew what I had to do. I rolled out from under the table and unloaded the MP90 into the insurgent. It wasn’t a quick burst that time.
With the last Owl Hunter pooling blood on the white floor, I dropped my empty weapon, stood, and ran to the window. It was spidered all over with cracks, but it had held. Uriah walked briskly through the doorway and clapped a hand on my shoulder. Had he known that the glass was bulletproof? I doubt it. His face was more severe than ever before, and I could hear him sucking in ragged breaths through his nose. It was at that moment I discovered there were some things in life Uriah Noskov couldn’t deflect with that boyish smile of his.
While he locked down the door, I helped the Glaucus researcher to his feet.
“Oh, thank god,” the man said. “Thank god. Who are you?”
“My name is Thalia Gordon,” I said. I deliberately left out my rank. “I’m with Aegis. This is Undersecretary Noskov. We managed to escape and we’re here to contact headquarters.”
“You’re Professor Carlos Garza, aren’t you?” Uriah asked, walking past us but stopping briefly to look the researcher up and down. “I’ve seen your dossier. Impressive work in experimental warfare, but I didn’t know you transferred to Terekat.”
“My work here is classified,” Professor Garza said, following Uriah around the shelves and into the lab proper. He seemed taken aback by the Oculus agent’s behavior, and at the moment, so was I. “If you want to contact HQ, you’ll need to take the auxiliary elevator down the hall. The raiders are all over the main elevators.”
“I know,” Uriah said, glancing around the room. The room was divided into several workstations, with fluorescent lighting arrays lining the ceiling like upturned mushrooms. On the left wall, there was a bank of computer stations, and in the far corner, a glass partition separated what appeared to be an automated manufacturing plant from the rest of the lab.
“Then what are you doing?” Garza asked. “They’ll be back here any minute. I…I’ll stay and point them in the wrong direction.”
“That’s very brave of you,” Uriah said absentmindedly, bending over one of the computer consoles.
“What exactly are the Owl Hunters after?” I asked, hoping to understand Uriah’s behavior. “What have you been doing here?”
“I told you, it’s classified,” Garza sniffed. “What’s your rank, Ms. Gordon?”
“Now is not the time, Professor Garza,” I said, adding a bit of steel to my voice. “We still don’t know why they’ve attacked the town or what they want.”
“You heard what they want. They want to ransom us off!” I didn’t like his evasive attitude. It seemed to be more than just the panic of the situation setting in.
“Professor, I’m going to ask you one last time. Gently. What have you been researching down here?”
Garza sighed, running one blood-flecked hand over his bald spot. “Just…a number of projects from the experimental warfare division. This lab was assigned to the TANTALUS program.”
I doubt many of you are familiar with the TANTALUS program, even my readers among Aegis and Glaucus. I’d only heard of it through one of my instructors, as he’d started the project in conjunction with the Hercules servosuit program. TANTALUS was the codename for a series of personal autocannons designed to replace conventional pre-War assault rifles as Minerva’s frontline infantry weapon of choice. The idea was to maximize destructive potential and firing rate while minimizing weight and recoil. With an absurd loadout of 20mm rounds (the sort of caliber reserved for sniper rifles and anti-tank weaponry) and a projected semi-automatic fire rate of 80 rounds per minute, this seemed like a pipe dream when the idea was first conceived in 2079. Being the good scientists that they are, the men and women of Glaucus went about it anyway.
The project was named TANTALUS because every iteration of the weapon seemed to hover just outside the realm of practicality. Like the mythical Tantalus, their goal was ever in sight, but always out of reach. My professor told me that the only way to counter the autocannon’s weight and recoil issues were to improve our servosuit technology. As far as I knew, the TANTALUS was useless without mechanical assistance. Even at rest, it was too heavy, and only a few shots were enough to break an arm with the recoil. Why would the insurgents want something so impractical?
“I can’t imagine how the raiders found out about it,” Garza said. “They never interrogated any of my staff. They must have tortured it out of one of the townspeople.”
My mouth began to go dry just then. Trying to control the pitch of my voice, I leaned in closer to Professor Garza. “How could the townspeople possibly know about the TANTALUS program?”
“I guess classified doesn’t mean what I thought it did,” Uriah piped in, still rattling away at the keyboard. He seemed to be stuck at the computer’s login screen, and Professor Garza made no motion to help him.
“A-are you going to call headquarters, or not?” he asked, the fear raising his tone. I grabbed his collar in response and slammed him back against the nearest workstation. Rifle parts rattled on the table. “Christ! It wasn’t my idea. The General sent some of the townspeople to assist us. I tried to argue with him, but he insisted…”
“And he didn’t think this information could ever fall into the wrong hands?” I growled.
“That’s what I said,” Garza told me in a terrified whisper. “But he assured me the townspeople would be looked after. He said it was a necessary part of the Kurtz Method.”
“The what?” I thought immediately of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My second father was fond of that one. I told myself it was just a coincidence, a random association, but I couldn’t seem to put the thought of decapitated heads out of my mind.
“It’s his idea of keeping order. We show them the kind of technology we possess, and they treat us like gods because, to them, we might as well be. That’s part of the reason why he established this laboratory in the first place. He supplied us with everything we asked. No rules. No Oculus, no regents. He said unrestricted progress was necessary to keep his boys and girls safe on the battlefield. And we’ve made such strides…”
“Why would Okane need to flash your new hardware to maintain order? I thought the people here were grateful to have Aegis watching over them.” By now, I was starting to form my own answers in my head, but I wanted to hear it from Garza’s quivering lips.
“I don’t know. I rarely leave the facility. But this place used to be primitive. The people here worshipped some strange deities. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those barbaric tendencies remain.” The statue under the pub flashed through my brain, and my stomach bottomed out. “The General is just trying to civilize the frontier. If he has to bring in a few dissenters to witness the latest TANTALUS in action, then that’s his business, not mine. Or yours.”
“If General Okane has been bullying the populace under his care, then I’ll make it my business.”
“It’s not bullying. He never hurt any of the townspeople.”
My fist clenched around his collar, and I felt a white-hot fury flood my nerves. “Who did he hurt?”
I jerked him forward and slammed him back into the workstation. His head bounced off the shelves with a solid thunk. “You specified. He never hurt any of the townspeople, so who did he hurt instead?”
“Just raiders!” Garza cried. Next to us, Uriah hummed cheerily and I saw the computer screen flicker on the stainless steel cabinet next to Garza’s head. He’d cracked the login password, but I didn’t care at the moment to see what he was looking at. “They were prisoners from the raider groups in the outzones. He said they would have been executed anyway!”
“We used them as targets for the live fire TANTALUS tests. That’s it. I swear.”
His words knocked the breath out of me. I didn’t think the sick feeling in my stomach could get any worse, but it had. I was struggling not to vomit.
“That’s it,” I repeated. My own voice sounded limp and dull. “You fucking monster.”
“What?” he cried. “I told you, the General was going to execute them! Instead of going to waste, their lives went to our research, which may save your own life someday if these Owl Hunters don’t kill us all first.”
I could see that it was futile. I released Professor Garza’s collar and flexed my stiff fingers. Only then did I realize I was starting to hyperventilate. Uriah’s voice brought me back.
“Ah, here. Thalia, you’ll need to see this,” he said. I hooked my arm around Garza’s neck and dragged him over to the monitor with me. A video was queued up, showing a still image of a firing range. There were three men standing at the far end of the room with their arms and legs in chains. They were strapped with massive plates of body armor unlike anything I’d seen before, and there were black bags thrown over their heads. Across from them, three TANTALUS rifles were affixed to mechanical mounts built into the floor. There were uniformed Aegis officers at each of the rifles, and a line of townspeople stood beside them. They were all looking away from the men chained to the far wall. I swallowed hard, finding not a drop of liquid left in my mouth.
Uriah played the video. I saw Professor Garza walk across the camera’s view with a tablet in his hand. He counted down to zero methodically, and the TANTALUS rifles roared to life, chugging out slugs and shaking the officers even as the mounts bucked to keep them under control. Several women in the crowd screamed. The slugs tore through the body armor and the men inside with terrifying ease. After only three seconds of sustained fire, the officers stopped. The targets hung limp from the wall, and the man in the center had been completely torn in half. Before the video ended, I heard one of the Aegis officers murmur, “That’s how we do it.”
“How…” I tried to say, then stopped as I came up against a wall of rage and disgust. I felt that knot of barbaric fury crawl up my throat again, but I fought it back. I had an important question to ask. I needed to get it out, before the scream took over and brought every last Owl Hunter down on top of us. “How do you know they were raiders?”
“Excuse me?” Professor Garza mumbled.
I had to be careful. I had to force every word past the demonic thing wriggling just below my mouth. “How do you know those men were raiders? Did the General tell you that?”
“Yes, but why would he lie?”
“Professor Garza, the townspeople are working together with the Owl Hunters,” I said.
“And ever since we made this discovery, I’ve asked myself: why would they do it? What could possibly compel them?” I let go of him and stepped away from the screen. I felt dizzy. “Thank you, professor, for giving me the answer I’ve been looking for.”
“Who the hell are you?” Garza asked, looking between the two of us. “Really?”
“Slaves to the truth,” Uriah said. “The cruelest master I’ve ever served.” I leaned my head against a shelf. My eyes were unfocused.
“You can’t take that,” I heard Professor Garza say.
“Why not? You said it yourself. They’re just raiders.”
I looked back at Uriah, who was in the process of unplugging a USB drive from the computer. “You knew,” I said, glaring at him. “Fucking prick. You knew all along.”
“Didn’t I say that you had to see it for yourself?” he asked without looking over his shoulder. “If I had told you what I knew, you wouldn’t have believed me, and you probably would have kicked me in the face also.”
The tears massing behind my eyelids began to break through, and I felt my body shivering. This is the effect that the rot can have on a person, especially one who has convinced herself that she’s escaped it. The death of hope is as agonizing as the end of a life, and far more permanent. Minerva was the last thing that I could put my faith in – larger than any human being or single fragile idea – and it turned out to be nothing more than an engine of vice and cruelty. Oasis was fading all around me, a mirage melting into desert sands. All I had left was the reality that I’d been too blindly hopeful to notice before. Under the indifferent light of truth, the frantic servitude I saw in the townspeople earlier that day resembled that of hostages, or slaves. Only now, in pretending to be hostages, were the people of Terekat free.
“I know this is difficult,” Uriah said, reaching out to cup my face. I pulled away and swatted at his hand, though he’d retracted it too quickly to make contact. “But we have to keep moving. These files have to get to Minister Truong.”
“There’s more?” I muttered.
“Much more. You don’t need to see it. Are you ready to go?”
“Wait,” Professor Garza interjected. We both turned to him. “There’s something you should know.”
“We don’t have an abundance of time,” Uriah quipped.
“No, you don’t. The raiders have stolen our latest Hercules suits. That’s why they’re after the TANTALUS rifles. When I left them in the armory, my people were still fitting them into the suits, but they should be here any minute. You’ll need a TANTALUS of your own if you want to stand a chance against them.”
Professor Garza walked around the workstations to the back of the lab, across from the manufacturing facility. There was a case built into the wall housing four TANTALUS rifles, each one blunt, ugly, and nearly half my size.
“We’re trying to avoid attention, not attract it,” Uriah said. “Besides, that isn’t going to be of help to either of us unless you also have a pair of servosuits.”
“We’ve improved weight distribution and recoil for the T45s,” Garza said, punching in a code and sliding open the case. “Somewhat. Try to brace it on something if you need to fire it. You’ll most certainly die without one, and I’d like to think that all this might go toward a good cause after all.”
“Spare us the shit,” I growled, hefting one of the autocannons. It couldn’t have weighed less than eleven kilograms. My left hand could barely fit around the grip on the barrel, and just trying to hold it level was a challenge. In spite of that, I felt an intoxicating surge of confidence in carrying the rifle, an iron-plated mechanical power-by-association. Though my body struggled with the weapon, I took on its clean and deadly purpose. This was the sort of feeling that had spurred me to join Aegis. This was the strength I had sought.
“I suggest you put that back,” Uriah said to me. “We don’t need it.”
“Until we do, and by then it’s too late, isn’t it?” I said. “I’m not going to take that chance.”
“But you’re perfectly willing to let that monstrous thing slow you down?”
“You let me worry about this monstrous thing. Just get us to the uplink so we can tell HQ what’s really going on here.”
“There’s no proof on that computer,” Garza blurted. “We don’t know who those men were.”
“Somebody does,” I said. Suddenly, there was a crash from the front of the lab, and the whispering sound of cascading glass. Our heads all turned in unison. It was as if I’d summoned the vengeful ghosts of Terekat themselves. And, in a way, I wasn’t wrong.
I…I don’t know what to say. This is a strange sensation for me. To be presented with facts and evidence that directly contradict preconceived notions about yourself and the life you know. The Hercules and TANTALUS projects are key parts of the Oracle Project. Is this truly their history? I must see if I can verify this.