Articles and stories on the history and people of The Demon Archives world.

14

Apr 2015

Mirage – Part 5

Posted by / in Lore / 9 comments

[Read Part 4]

I’ve never used a servosuit before, though my third father and his team wore prototype models on their expedition in 2086. That was my first impression of Aegis – impossibly powerful men wearing metal plates on their bodies and translucent domes over their heads. The reality, for those of you who don’t get out of headquarters very often, is much less mythical. Standard Aegis soldiers are still wearing kevlar and camouflage, and the servosuits reserved for spec ops were barely worth the heartache they caused. Prone to locking up and highly dependent on battery life, the Hercules servosuits I knew were little more than mechanical braces attached to a soldier’s arms, legs, and back. They were small enough to fit under a uniform, but they allowed users to wear heavier body armor and they supposedly helped stave off fatigue. They were hardly bulletproof, which was why Professor Garza’s concern seemed unusual to me.

He was nodding silently, staring shellshocked toward the front of the lab. None of us dared speak as we listened to the heavy footfalls emanating from the entrance. Then, Professor Garza darted forward, holding his hands up. I tried to grab him, but my fingers only brushed the sturdy fabric of his coat. Looking to Uriah, I saw that he was backing slowly toward the door to the automated manufacturing facility. The walls of the enclosure were made of glass, but I could see that the staging area within was only the tip of the facility. The wall of the laboratory had been partially pulled back to allow access to the machinery behind the computer banks and empty output slots. I backed up with Uriah, but I kept my eyes on Professor Garza. He had reached the door, and he was pleading with the intruder, who was still blocked from my field of vision by the shelves. As he screamed in surrender, a burst of gunfire ripped through Professor Garza’s chest, and he fell back against the body of the Owl Hunter that had shot at Uriah.

I tried to raise the T45 autocannon to my shoulder, but the rifle’s absurd weight prevented me from holding the sight steady. I contemplated firing at the shelves, expecting the 20mm rounds to pass through aluminium as easily as air, but I couldn’t be sure to hit the target behind them, and in any case, the self-confidence I had gained from holding the T45 had withered, and I wasn’t eager to find out what it would do to my shoulder if I pulled the trigger.

As my mind raced through my options, I felt a hand on my arm, and it pulled me firmly toward the manufacturing facility’s staging area. I let Uriah guide me to the open door while my eyes remained fixed on the gory scene at the front of the lab. The acrid smoke of gunfire curled gray fingers up to the ceiling, and a muffled voice speaking in modified Kyrgyz droned over shuffling rubberized bootsoles. When I reached the glass enclosure, I had to tilt the T45 upright in order to fit through the door, and in hefting the weapon, its shifting weight slid the barrel out of my aching left hand. The rifle pressed against me, and I stumbled back a step as I frantically tried to regain my grip. I managed to avoid dropping the rifle, but because I’d stepped backward, I bumped into the glass door frame on my way in.

The voice stopped, as did my heartbeat. Quickly, I shuffled into the enclosure and backed up toward the maintenance access, with Uriah’s hand on my shoulder guiding my movement.

Then the Owl Hunter stepped out from behind the shelves. I saw what General Okane’s unrestricted scientific progress had yielded, and I understood why the MP90 was no longer adequate. The latest Hercules suit wasn’t an exoskeleton of mechanical braces. It was a solid sheathe of metal plates covering the entire body – or at least, the parts of the body that I could see. The Owl Hunter’s torso was locked into a behemoth armored wedge, similar to the ones I’d seen the Khan’s victims wearing in the live fire video. His forearms and lower legs were covered with similarly extravagant armored gauntlets and boots. The new suit’s helmet was reinforced and equipped with a rebreather, and the half-dome visor was opaque black. It was a dark reflection of Minerva’s horrible potential: mechanized, faceless, and unstoppable.

As soon as I made eye contact with the metal golem (it was easier to think of it as a sort of mythological beast, since it so little resembled a human being), I turned and ran into the manufacturing plant. The Owl Hunter’s assault rifle erupted, and the glass partition shattered behind me, but I was already deep within the cover of darkness and industrial machinery. Red light illuminated the guts of the facility, pooling on the concrete floor and glinting off of robotic cranes that stuck in the air like dead roach legs. I followed Uriah along the length of a large cylindrical lathe, working out a plan in my head as the heavy footsteps thumped behind us.

I had a basic grasp of how these automated Glaucus facilities worked (remember, I had quite a lot of free time on my hands in lieu of a social life), and from what I understood, the plant was meant to operate entirely by computer control. It allowed a small team of specialized researchers to design and fabricate machine parts on demand, without the need for greasy, unreliable engineers or metalworkers crowding up the laboratory. However, there was always the distant-but-terrifying thought of a mechanical failure, and in that event, I knew the facility had to have a workbench on hand. A workbench would likely have an engineer’s vice built in, which I could clamp onto the T45 to absorb the recoil.

My eyes darted around the facility as we followed the lathe, ducking under a low hanging pipe and turning left at a bank of vertical mills. The hellish red lights made it difficult to identify one shadowy mechanical form from another. At least twice, I jumped after mistaking a dormant piece of equipment for the armored Owl Hunter. The tension was made worse by the echo of his boots on the concrete, bouncing around the cavernous bowels of the control tower. I kept expecting him to round the next corner and execute us both. I wouldn’t blame him, not after what I’d seen on Professor Garza’s computer, but if we died there, the files on Uriah’s drive would never see the light of day, and in taking their revenge, the Owl Hunters would kill the truth along with us.

We soon hit the wall, and Uriah immediately began prying at a vent cover running along the floor. I scanned the hazy shadows for movement, hefting the T45 up to my shoulder with a good deal of protestation from my arms, but as I did so, I found what I’d been looking for. There was a workbench against the wall by the vent, and sitting on the edge was an engineer’s vice. The angle wasn’t ideal, as the bench was almost obscured by vertical mills, but there appeared to be just enough of a clearing to aim the gun in the vice down the walkway we’d just taken.

Uriah was about to crawl into the vent when he noticed that I was moving to the workbench. We made eye contact, and I jerked my head at the cast steel vice as I rested the T45 on my shoulder and spun the handle of the vice with my free hand. He gave me a look of admiration and pity mixed, then he ducked into the vent. He knew that his survival was paramount, and he knew that as his shield, I would do everything in my power to protect him. We seemed to have reached a point where we’d transcended verbal communication, and the breadth of a conversation could be covered in just one look.

The footsteps were growing louder, but I couldn’t tell if it was just my nerves or if the Owl Hunter was actually closing in. I had to focus on opening the jaws of the vice. The frame of the T45 was so wide that the vice had to be completely open to fit it into the jaws. Once it was open, I slid the rifle inside, and it immediately sagged onto the table. The footsteps were now certainly getting closer. I looped one arm under the barrel and held it horizontally while I spun the handle again, closing the jaws tighter around the frame. The weight of the rifle seemed to lessen with every turn of the handle. It was nearly tight enough, but then I heard something just below the pounding footsteps. It was a wet exhalation filtered through a rebreather. He was close. Too close. The T45 was steady, but I couldn’t reach the trigger from where I was standing. I was still facing the wall. My mind flew to pieces, scattered among fight or flight, but something else took over and chose flight just as a hail of bullets peppered the wall next to me.

I let go of the autocannon and dove behind the vertical mill. Now free of the rifle’s crushing weight, I felt buoyant and strong as I dashed through the mills, blocking out the sounds of gunfire and the sparks nicking at my skin. I bolted across the facility to the cylindrical lathe, sliding under the huge machine and running back toward the lab. The bullets ceased, and I couldn’t hear the Owl Hunter behind me. I did, however, hear a metallic wrenching sound, and a distant part of me recognized that the insurgent had probably pulled the T45 out of the vice. I had practically handed him one of the most powerful rifles ever developed by man, and unlike me, he was actually equipped to use it.

I ran across the lab. What more could I do? Alone and unarmed, panic threatening to tear apart my tenuous self-control, I skirted the workstations and flew past the massacre at the front of the lab. The door was still locked, but the bulletproof window had been shattered by the Owl Hunter on his way in, so I gripped the windowsill, intending to swing myself out into the hall. As I did, a shard of glass sunk into my left palm, and the electric jolt of pain liquidized my arm. I dropped, scraping my left knee on the windowsill and tumbling out into the hallway whimpering like a crippled dog. Hot tears rimmed my eyes, and I clutched my gushing hand to my chest. The glass had stuck in the windowsill, fortunately, but it had cut through to the bone, and without the shard to stop the blood, it was running in little rivers all over my shirt, painting over the darker stains of blood from my first kill.

I knew I didn’t have time to care for the wound. I rolled over and got to my feet, realizing only then that I had even less time than I first thought. Another Owl Hunter in Hercules armor was approaching down the hall, and as I watched, he raised his assault rifle. I turned and ran the other way, with the scream of gunfire chasing after me. The TANTALUS lab was at the end of the hall, and there was a t-junction only meters away. I turned the corner before the Owl Hunter could find his mark, but all I saw were more doors with observation windows. The hall culminated in a dead end.

Suddenly, the nearest door on my right slid open of its own accord. I expected someone to emerge from the room, but it was quiet inside. With the Owl Hunter’s thumping footfalls urging me onward, I ran for the door and ducked inside the room. The door sealed immediately, and I found myself standing in the firing range from Professor Garza’s video. My heart pounded against my ribs and I momentarily forgot about the blood dripping from my left hand. The three TANTALUS rifles were still attached to the mounts, aiming at the concrete wall, which had been turned into a cratered moonscape from repeated live fire tests.

I ran to the center rifle and threw my arms around it like I’d seen lovers do. Wrenching at the tool of my salvation, I was horrified to find that it was locked in place. The rifle was secured by a clamp in front of the trigger guard and a cushioned brace at the back. The mount itself had a swiveling neck, but it refused to budge. At any second, I expected to hear the gunshots that would end my life. Out of desperation, I sank down to the base of the mount and looked around, feeling the other side with my good hand. The mount was smooth and devoid of any sort of external controls. I feared it was controlled remotely, and I knew I didn’t have time to go searching for Professor Garza’s tablet.

“Come on, come on, you prick,” I murmured. I wasn’t one for talking to inanimate objects, and I was aware that making noise in this situation wasn’t my best strategy, but I was quite out of my mind with terror. The stress of the day had been chipping away at the stone I’d built up around myself, and underneath it all the bundle of nerve fibers I called a consciousness were firing in ever faster and more desperate chemical arcs. I was about to give up on the mounted rifle when my fingers brushed against the handle of a locking mechanism. I clutched it and jerked wildly, feeling for the give in the mechanism.

After some blind fumbling, I discovered that the handle could slide down when facing outward, and with the bolt released, the neck of the mount became loose. I pressed my shoulder to the padded stock and wrapped my good hand around the handle. My left hand throbbed, and I tried to grip the bottom of the barrel, but it was so wide that I had to stretch my palm out to fit my fingers around it and that split the wound even wider. Another pitiful whimper rose in my throat, so I tried to brace the barrel on my forearm instead. The T45 bucked slightly on smooth hinges as I settled into a firing position.

Then, I swung the gun around, circling the mount as I did so. I jumped and nearly pulled the trigger when I saw the second Owl Hunter standing right outside the window with an MG36 rifle at his shoulder. He was looking down the corridor, scanning back and forth with the rifle. He hadn’t seen me enter the firing range, and all the doors were locked. I wondered if I should just stay put. That idea was put to bed when the Owl Hunter turned toward me and my eyes met his obsidian black visor. He fired first, the bullets catching in the same bulletproof glass that protected the TANTALUS lab. I followed right behind him, hugging the monstrous T45 and squeezing the trigger. The rifle bucked so violently that it smashed into my lower jaw, and I felt something pop. The glass shattered, and I quickly lost control of the weapon. I realized too late that by unlocking the neck of the mount, the neck was no longer absorbing most of the recoil. My face and shoulder had done that job instead.

I let go of the trigger and the T45 tilted down, clouds of smoke huffing from its barrel like a colossal cigar. Through the broken window, I could see a trail of ruinous bullet holes running up the far wall, and there was a spatter of blood directly opposite me. Bits of desert-colored armor and flecks of meat stuck to the spatter, apparently blasted into the wall from the force of the impact. I couldn’t see the Owl Hunter, but based on the size of the blood spatter and the pieces decorating it, I knew he had to be dead.

The taste of blood filled my mouth, and I leaned over the rifle to spit out the sour pool gathering under my tongue. My lower teeth had been shoved up into my gums by the stock of the T45, and just the act of spitting sent an ache all throughout my skull.

When I looked up again, the Owl Hunter from the lab was standing in front of the window, aiming his T45 at my head. The gun rested easily in his hands. My mind and body froze, every level of my being recognizing the futility of resistance. The Owl Hunter pulled the trigger, and the rifle blared a warning alarm. He pulled the trigger again and again, but it wouldn’t fire. All that emerged was an ugly digital crunching sound. The little boy flashed through my head, clicking against the safety as he’d tried to shoot me in the face. I was charmed, or more likely cursed.

I leaned over the rifle again just as the Owl Hunter dropped the T45 and bolted down the hall. I missed my first shot, but I was prepared for the recoil this time and I continued firing through the wall, hoping to get a lead on him. 20mm slugs tore through the door to the firing range and ripped into the corner of the room. I let go of the trigger when I heard a filtered cry of pain just beyond the door. Ears ringing, good hand buzzing from the recoil, I let go of the T45 and leaned out the window of the firing range.

The first Owl Hunter had taken a slug to the sternum, and he had already gone still, but I’d clipped the second in the back, and he was lying face down in the hall. I could hear him moaning inside the suit, but he wasn’t moving his arms or legs. I’d severed his spine, and the horror of that discovery sent me reeling back to the live fire video. Wasn’t this just the same? An Aegis soldier at the firing line, cutting down insubordinate citizens with an overpowered weapon? My rage and disgust in the lab had been aimed solely at Professor Garza and General Okane, but now it all collapsed inward on myself. In spite of my moral outrage, I’d played the soldier’s part to a T. Even though I knew, or at least suspected, what the Owl Hunters were truly fighting for, I was still mowing them down, still protecting Minerva’s status quo. I’ve come to hate myself less for this moment of weakness – after all, it was an act of self-defense – but the guilt consumed me at the time, and it was a prime factor, even moreso than the video, in my decision to dismantle the status quo, or die trying.

I hurried over to one of the unused T45s and ejected the magazine. The rectangular box was larger than one of my fists, and packed full of 20mm slugs. Carefully, I stepped over the jagged windowsill and ejected the magazine from the rifle that Professor Garza had given me. It was empty. Had he merely forgotten to mention that the weapon wasn’t loaded due to the Owl Hunter’s interruption, or was it a deliberate attempt to get me and Uriah killed? I’ll never know. I replaced the empty magazine and hefted the T45, which was now even heavier with a full belly.

The paralyzed Owl Hunter was still moaning and whispering to himself as I walked past him. I paused and considered putting him out of his misery for just a moment. I imagined myself in his place, watching the Minervan bitch deny him even the courtesy of a peaceful death. She was just like the others, only she got to deliver the final act of cruelty: she would drag out the last agonizing minutes of his life into an epoch of pain and regret. If only he knew that it was pragmatism, not cruelty, that stayed her hand. All she had to euthanize him with was the autocannon, which was both too loud and too dangerous to use on a dying man. Time was running short, and the other Owl Hunters were closing in. She had an important mission to carry out, one to redeem all her acts of cruelty, and she couldn’t risk that mission for one small mercy.

I still don’t hate myself any less for that.

The hallway widened at the end into a security checkpoint, delineated from the rest of the underground facility by a line of metal detectors and a small windowed office on the right. Beyond it lay the auxiliary lift. As I approached the array of metal detectors, a door opened to my right, and a quiet voice called to me from within the security office.

“Thalia. Over here,” Uriah said, and I ducked inside the office. He was sitting at a console in front of a bank of monitors, his hands folded in his lap. The air vent on the far wall had been pried apart.

“Did you open the firing range for me?” I asked.

“It was the least I could do,” he replied. “I’ve been cycling through the cameras around the control tower, and I’ve plotted our route to the satellite uplink. You may want to make a slight detour, though.”

Uriah turned to one of the monitors and tapped on it. I set the T45 down on the console and leaned over his shoulder. On the monitor, I could see a small office with its desk and cabinets pushed against the walls. In the empty space, a chair had been set up, and a young man was bound to it by heavy ropes. Two Owl Hunters were in the room with him, one standing under the camera and the other bending over their captive. I didn’t recognize him with his head down, but the Owl Hunter grabbed him by the jaw and tilted his head up. It was Steven Crane, identifiable only by the sharp widow’s peak jutting out of his crew cut. His face was bulging with bruises and smeared with blood.

“Where are they holding him?” I asked.

“Administrator’s office near the server farm. It’s one floor below the uplink. Are you willing to take – ”

“We’re going,” I said. Cadet Crane was the closest thing I had to a friend, and I couldn’t ignore what I saw on that little monitor. It was a huge risk, even riskier than stopping to euthanize the Owl Hunter I’d paralyzed, but that didn’t occur to me at the time. The human brain, it seems, is designed to only recognize hypocrisy in hindsight, if at all. I picked up the T45 again and left the office, with Uriah following behind me. We entered the lift, but Uriah didn’t immediately hit the floor button. Instead, he unfurled a handkerchief from inside his coat and beckoned to my bleeding hand.

“I don’t care if you’re allergic to secretaries, I need to patch that up,” he said. I propped my gun against the wall and held out my hand. “How did it happen?”

“It’s stupid,” I muttered. He began to wrap the handkerchief around my palm, weaving it over the back of my hand. “Cut it on some glass.”

“Well, you are either the luckiest or the most skilled undergraduate to ever come from the Aegis Officer’s Academy. Probably both. You just survived two assailants in powered armor and a glass cut on your hand is all you’ve got to show for it.”

“More or less,” I said. It was painful to speak, so I kept my sentences short. The blood pooling in my mouth was starting to become a nuisance again, so I spit it out against the polished metal walls of the lift. When Uriah was finished with the makeshift bandage, he looked up into my eyes.

“Do you trust me now?” he asked.

“You know I do,” I replied.

“There aren’t many things I know about you.”

I knew he was giving me another opportunity to open up to him, but I was in no mood to bite. After all I’d just seen and done, my usual defense mechanisms were kicking in. I was trying to rebuild the stone around me.

“You knew my name,” I pointed out.

“I know a lot of names. Especially on the Aegis roster. It’s part of my investigation. As a first class cadet who had never been to Terekat before, you weren’t on my radar. I couldn’t help but notice the women on the roster, though. It’s so difficult to convince the admissions board to allow you into the military before giving birth to at least one child.”

I was aware of that, though I didn’t experience any of those difficulties firsthand. As I’m sure you all know, women in Minerva are expected to repopulate the planet first and pursue their careers second. However, the admissions board had access to my complete medical history, and I can only assume that was why they accepted me so readily. Uriah was getting too close to the truth, worming his way through the cracks in my stone, so I tried to turn him around.

“What exactly do you know about Oasis?” The longer sentence was agonizing, and I was sure even Uriah could hear the clicking in my jaw, but I was desperate to distract him. “How deep does this investigation go?”

“I never lied to you,” he said, walking over to the lift controls. “I didn’t know this attack was coming. Minister Truong first took an interest when General Okane refused to provide census data for his town. We started to overhear stories, just anecdotal tales from a few Aegis soldiers that had spent their leave in Terekat. One young private told a friend in confidence that he’d seen a woman chased through the streets with her thawb torn down to her waist. An Aegis soldier in a state of undress cornered her in an alley next to the Twins and molested her, until a local man intervened and beat the soldier with a plank of wood. Both the woman and the man were immediately arrested by General Okane’s security forces and taken to the control tower. The soldier was given medical attention and sent home without reprimand. Does that sound like it warrants investigation to you?”

“Truong is Minister of Diplomacy, not internal affairs. What’s this got to do with him?”

Uriah gave a mirthless laugh, and the lift hummed to life. “If you only had better people skills, you would make an excellent Oculus agent.”

“That supposed to be a compliment?”

“No. It was supposed to annoy you,” he said.

“Job done, asshole.”

“All the same, it’s true.”

“Uriah…” I began, turning away from him. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you what you want to know. Just trust me, if there were anyone I could tell, it would be you.”

I meant that. It seemed insane to me, opening up to an Oculus agent like I did, but I couldn’t deny it anymore. Our mutual connection, and the extremity of the situation, had pushed me to trust the first human being I’d known since my second father. I thought of the way Julius Gordon had betrayed my trust, and that scared me. I was deliberately leaving a crack in the stone, exposing just a glimpse of that tender nerve tissue. I knew it was dangerous, but I couldn’t help myself.

“I think that’s the best I’m going to get,” he replied. “Well, if this is the last conversation we ever have, then let me say it’s been a pleasure not knowing you.”

I smiled at him, which was a slightly less painful alternative to speech. Then, the lift slowed to a halt and the doors opened onto a curved observation deck. The walls of the control tower were transparent from the inside, just as the dome itself, allowing us to see half the town of Terekat spreading out around us. It was dizzying, to see the town so small and distant, while the surface of the dome was so close that we could see the hexagonal tracks it left in the sky. The deep orange sunset was stamped with silver, and in the lengthening shadows below, the town was eerily still. The observation deck was connected to another deck on the opposite side of the tower through a thin hallway, and filling the space on either side of the hallway were offices and server farms. In glancing down the hall, I saw a local woman walking away from the server farm, toward the main lifts at the center of the hall, and there were voices coming from the open door. The Owl Hunters were after more than just equipment to wage war on Minerva. They were looking for evidence of Okane’s crimes in those databases. I could only imagine the horrors the surveillance cameras of Terekat had seen over the last two years.

Uriah led me away from the hallway, toward a door that opened out onto the observation deck. Inside, I could hear thumping and ragged voices, both speaking in Kyrgyz. I recognized one of the voices as Crane’s. There were shuffling footsteps near the door, and I assumed the second Owl Hunter hadn’t moved from his sentry post in the corner. I looked down at the T45 and hesitated for a moment. Then, I leaned close to Uriah’s ear.

“Can you take the one on the left?”

He nodded, and I thrust the door open without a moment’s hesitation. The Owl Hunter in the corner straightened up, but before he could react, I threw myself and the whole weight of the autocannon into his chest. He exhaled sharply as I pinned him against the wall, then I reared back the T45 and slammed the barrel against the side of his head. He sprawled onto the floor, and I dropped the autocannon. While he was still dazed, I pulled his assault rifle out of his hands and took the sidearm from a strap on his waist. I pivoted on one knee with the pistol in my good hand and trained it on the torturer, whom Uriah had in a full nelson hold. The Owl Hunter was flailing her arms, but Uriah had apparently practiced the hold, because she had nowhere to go. The insurgent stopped flailing when she saw the pistol aimed at her chest.

“I won’t kill you if you don’t give me a reason,” I said in Kyrgyz. Slowly, I shut the door and Uriah pushed the Owl Hunter against the wall. I held the pistol on her while he picked up the rifle I’d thrown across the room. The male Owl Hunter was still lying on the floor in a daze as I moved to untie Cadet Crane. He was looking at me with the same sort of uncomprehending stare that I’d seen on the child at the brewery.

“Thalia,” he whispered. I avoided his gaze while I worked on his restraints. The nails of his left hand had been pried off, and the tips of his fingers were covered in drying blood.

“It’s okay, Steven. I’m here,” I felt compelled to say. However, when I’d untied his left hand and moved to his right, I had to look up. Crane’s thumb, index, and middle fingers had been sheared off at the metacarpals. All that remained of them was a purpling swell of meat around little exposed bones. In looking away, I met his gaze and saw the work of the Owl Hunters carved in deep, behind his eyelids. He opened his mouth several times, but in trying to speak he seemed to be opening up an emotional wellspring that he was reluctant to uncap.

I busied myself with the ropes at his legs, and when he was free I picked him up. With a jerking, powerful motion, he threw his arms around me and screamed into my shoulder. The wellspring had broken. Fortunately, his tortured scream was probably a familiar sound to the Owl Hunters working in the server farm, and the sounds of our struggle were nothing out of the ordinary. His scream blasted away my self-consciousness and I wrapped my left arm around his chest, holding his head to my shoulder with my right hand. The desire to comfort, to protect, is what I’d always thought of as a mothering instinct. It was something I never thought I would know, being damaged as I was, and raised by a succession of men besides. Still, something like a motherly affection overtook me, and I held Crane until his screaming stopped. I held him until I no longer noticed the bones of his right hand scraping against my back.

“We’re here,” I repeated. “We’re getting you out.”

“How?” he asked, his voice still a whisper. I looked over his shoulder and saw that Uriah had already hog-tied the torturer with the ropes that had bound Crane to the chair. He’d also taken off her mask and used it as a gag. He crossed the room and began to give the male Owl Hunter the same treatment.

“We escaped during the attack. That’s Uriah Noskov, he’s…on leave, like us. We’re on our way to the satellite uplink so we can call for help. We caught you on a security camera downstairs. Couldn’t leave you like this, now could we?”

Crane laughed, a high-pitched sound strained through a constricted throat. His face was even more horrifically bruised up close than it had been on the monitors. I could see where they’d split the skin, where the sores were building up.

“You’re an angel, Thalia. A bona fide angel. These animals, you have no idea…”

“Steven, there’s something you need to know about this situation,” I said. “The Owl Hunters and the townspeople are working together.”

Crane gasped. “That’s why she…”

“The barmaid?”

“She wanted to tie me up. For fun. I…I said okay. After we were done, she left. Then the raiders came in. Fucking bitch. Why would they do this?”

“They’re fighting back,” I said sharply. “Okane is exploiting the locals for our benefit. They cater to us, or they get taken out back and shot. They’re slaves, Steven.”

The unbruised flesh around Crane’s forehead and cheeks paled. “Oh, god.” I could see the revelation slithering around inside his head, poisoning everything he knew. Yes, you raped that barmaid, Crane. You raped her and you didn’t even know it. You just thought you were entitled to it. You expected her to want it and she was too afraid to say no, like so many girls before her. Only this time, she had a plan. I still pitied Crane, and I wanted to protect him, but I couldn’t help resenting him for that. His ignorance was the only thing that saved him. He was acting on arrogance, not cruelty. If he had known what he was doing, I likely would have left the Owl Hunters to their work. But he wasn’t the virus, merely a cell that carried it. Besides, he had paid for his arrogance.

“We have proof,” I said. “When we get to the uplink, we’re going to send footage to HQ of prisoners being executed and experimented on.”

“Are you sure about that?” he asked, speaking slowly.

“Or what? Allow Aegis to continue terrorizing the residents of Terekat?” Uriah piped up. He’d finished hog-tying and gagging the other insurgent. “Sure, that’s worked out okay so far.”

Crane scowled at Uriah, then turned back to me. “Is this true, T?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Is this really what you want?”

“I can show you some videos if you don’t believe me.”

Crane exhaled, and he seemed to swerve on his feet, but he collected himself. He seemed to be focused very intently on breathing. “No. I believe you.”

“Good.” I let go of him and handed over the pistol I’d taken from the male Owl Hunter. Crane was left-handed, and he carried the Beretta reproduction with ease. I returned to the T45 lying in the corner and reluctantly lifted the autocannon again. My arms began shaking right off. I didn’t know how much more punishment my body could take. I had been tested before in each of my lives, but never like this. It seemed I’d been preparing for this ordeal all along. An undamaged woman would have considered her future. She might have surrendered for the sake of her loved ones, or for creature comforts. But I had no one to surrender for. I had no future to distract me, and I had outgrown the need for creature comforts.

Uriah was damaged as well. Under the flippant exterior, he was the same sort of animal, and that was why he’d matched me step for step. Now, Steven Crane was on his way to understanding. I could tell that he still believed he was attached to his old life, but it was splitting from him, moment by moment. Soon, he would be just like us. Hollowed out. It’s not a bad state of being. It all depends on what you choose to fill in the hollow.

 

I have not been able to find a copy of these videos, at least not yet.  Anything to do with Terekat is heavily encrypted, difficult even for me to hack.  But I have at least been able to confirm that Glaucus was working with Okane out of Terekat on the Hercules and TANTALUS projects.  And the pace of their projects and the nature of the data are fairly damning, in my opinion.  It certainly would not have passed any sort of IRB approval to be worked on back at Glaucus HQ.

 

[This story was written by Josh Connor, author of the webcomic Steel Salvation. The image was illustrated by Tasha of the webcomic Tethered.  Start from the beginning.]

  • Tamara Haitaka

    Amazing story so far, very heavy and painful to imagine, but I want to know how it continues anyway.

    • Well I’m planning on posting the next section next Tuesday, unless @jsconner:disqus has to make a billion edits before then ;)

      • Thanks Tamara! I really appreciate all the thoughtful comments (and thank you for liking our webcomic on FB as well!). I do want to tweak the beginning of Chapter 6 a little bit, but since you’ve been enjoying the story so far, I’ll make sure it gets done before next Tuesday. Wouldn’t want to keep you in suspense any longer than necessary =)

      • Matt [in Middletown]

        You mean like my billion reworkings, edits, and absolute “Wait, why doesn’t that work now?!” frustrated file dumpings?

    • Eonknight

      I second that. This is a riveting story and a superb addition to the main webcomic. I can’t help but think it is worthy of a film adaptation. :-)

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  • Joel Joseph

    Ye-ouch. As always, I feel for the characters. The description of their anguish, both physical and mental, almost lets you step inside their skin and it’s not a fun place to be.

    • Yeah, Josh is an EXCELLENT writer and I was happy to work with him on these :)