Are you familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance?” I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t. They don’t teach it at the Aegis Officers’ Academy. There, I had been taught orders, the giving and receiving thereof, and the mechanical purity of thought that all soldiers throughout history have required to function in their duty. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological problem for those who can’t sublimate their own morality on the battlefield. It is the mental stress of trying to hold two contradicting ideas at once. This concept existed in the classroom, but only as an unspoken consequence for those who failed to rewrite their moral code to include justice, victory, murder, and destruction in the same line. I thought I could perform this psychological sleight-of-hand, but back then, war only existed on screens and papers. Murder was just a theory. That was before I hefted the weight of real human lives, turned them over in my palms, and tried to make them vanish up my sleeves.
My mission, the order I’d given to myself, was to help the Owl Hunters, and to do that, we had to kill them. If we had surrendered, we would have risked instant execution, or perhaps a deadly miscommunication between our variation of Kyrgyz and theirs. I knew that the Owl Hunters were fighting for truth, for their own lives and the lives of their families. I also knew that I had to shoot on sight.
From the moment the elevator doors swung open on the communications level, my heart had become a pulsing supernova. Cognitive dissonance raked the furrows of my brain. We were so close, but after seeing how many Owl Hunters were inside the data hub just one floor below, I felt discovery and death poised to crash down on us at any shutterframe instant. I advanced down the crisp white hallway with my autocannon raised unsteadily, and Uriah passed me to take up a position at the next corner. He pulled a small mirror from his jacket and tilted it back and forth. I saw a flash of desert tan on his mirror, and his grim eyes met mine. Our silent conversation confirmed what I’d seen in the mirror: an Owl Hunter in Hercules armor, standing around the corner by the satellite uplink. I tried to swallow away the sandpaper coating my mouth, but it stuck.
I already knew the rationale searing through my skull. We die, the evidence dies. The Owl Hunters could dig out videos and incriminating documents, but they had nowhere to take them. We had the ear of Minister Truong. In order to expose General Okane’s crimes, we had to get to the satellite uplink, and to do that, I needed to make one more Owl Hunter disappear. At least, that’s what I told myself as I slowly backed up and pressed myself to the wall. I tucked the TANTALUS rifle under my arm so I could brace it against the wall, hoping the recoil would ruin the hard surface instead of my shoulder.
Rolling my feet one step at a time, squeezing the T45 to my hip and fighting back tears as I gripped the barrel with my lacerated hand (without the mount to assist me, I knew I couldn’t balance the gun on my forearm again), I slid carefully around the bend. The Owl Hunter stood next to the door to the satellite uplink center with an MG36 in his arms. His helmet was turned away from me, looking down the other end of the hall. My supernova heart collapsed into a black hole, and I gently pulled the trigger.
Hip fire is a messy venture with any normal firearm, but with the T45, it was like unbottling an earthquake. The autocannon jackhammered against the wall, grinding the flesh off my thigh as invisible slugs exploded in clouds of powdered scenery around the Owl Hunter. The gun kicked up almost immediately, striking the light strip above us and turning the clean fluorescent into a staccato flicker. My palms burned, and I was sure my left hand had split in half. The Owl Hunter was momentarily stunned, but in the time it took me to readjust my weapon, he had raised his rifle.
The insurgent got two shots off before I pulled the trigger again. I heard the bullets ping against the wall just beside my ear. The next volley from the T45 caught him in the knee, which burst with an electric pop. As he toppled over, two more slugs ripped through his chest, and by the time he landed on the floor, he had gone limp. I staggered forward, moving on automatic, not even realizing that I could let go of the barrel with my gushing left hand. It felt as though I had fused to the autocannon. There was that power again, the machine superiority, and in that thoughtless vacuum my cognitive dissonance erased. I was every bit the soldier they were training me to be.
Suddenly, the weight of the T45 lifted and I became human again. Uriah had stepped in next to me to grip the barrel, sharing the weight of the autocannon for just a moment. Then, we heard voices coming from the uplink center, and I knew that rest would only be the death of us. I pulled the T45 away from Uriah and hauled it to the door.
To my surprise, Crane rushed past me and threw open the door with his shoulder. I followed him in, and we found two insurgents inside, both sitting at auxiliary consoles on either side of the room. One was the woman I’d seen leaving the server farm, and the other was a uniformed Owl Hunter. The uniformed Hunter had been reaching for her rifle, but she was frozen in the sights of Crane’s pistol. I tried to raise the T45 to my shoulder in order to appear more threatening, but my muscles were no longer able to lift the weapon that high, so it just hovered shakily under my armpit instead.
“Don’t move!” I shouted in hoarse Kyrgyz. “Don’t speak!”
Uriah and Crane moved in after me, and Uriah immediately locked the door. Crane approached the Owl Hunter with his pistol held out in his left hand. The insurgent sat unmoving in her chair, until Crane cracked the pistol across her head.
“Stop it, Steven,” I hissed.
“Noskov, grab his weapon,” Crane said, acting as if he hadn’t heard me. Either he didn’t notice that the masked Hunter was distinctly feminine, or he chose to believe otherwise.
“Sir, yes sir,” Uriah said, sliding the Owl Hunter’s rifle off her shoulder and taking her handgun. I approached the local woman, who had dutifully put her hands behind her head. Her eyes were fixated on the TANTALUS rifle in my arms, and I realized with a sickening feeling that this was the very weapon General Okane had used to terrorize the population of Terekat. Had she seen a loved one on the wrong end of that firing range? Or worse, had I just cut one down in the hallway outside?
I laid the T45 against the wall and bent down to look the woman in the eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “We’re trying to help you. Please cooperate.” As I said this, I patted down her thawb and discovered a pistol tucked into her waistband. The woman’s terror turned to scorn as I reached under her robe and took the gun from her.
“Hey, hold on,” Crane said. “What the hell are they doing in here?”
“I suspect they’re looking for information to use against General Okane. These computers archive all the comm. logs from the past year.”
“Okay, but how do they know that?” Crane asked. His question caught my attention. I hadn’t considered that. “How do they know how to work our computers at all?”
“Certain individuals are trained to operate Minervan technology in our affiliated towns,” Uriah explained.
“Is that where they came from? These Owl Hunters came from our towns?”
“We don’t know where they came from,” I said. “But I don’t believe they’re residents of Terekat.”
“Then we’d better ask,” Crane said, before whipping around and striking the Owl Hunter again. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”
The Owl Hunter held her tongue. I wanted to take the gun from Crane, but I couldn’t look away from the woman at the other end of the room.
“Crane, if you hit her again I’ll lock you outside,” I said. I heard a frustrated sigh from behind me.
“Don’t make me do something we’re both gonna regret,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize he was speaking to the Owl Hunter. “Where the fuck are you from?”
“They were sent by the Twins,” the local woman said, speaking in English. Everyone in the room turned to her. “We pray for a savior and Kassyk-Innji sent us the Domani. They are blessed with the mark of Kassyki-Ulpa, a warrior’s blessing. This is why you cannot stop them.”
“The Twins, as in…the gambling house?” Crane asked.
“You call them sun and moon,” the woman replied. “Our gods. The Owl Khan bury our temples, but we dig them up and pray for freedom. The Domani Khel-Duna are born in the hot light and learn by the cold light.”
“Wait, wait. Say their names again,” Crane demanded.
“Kassyk-Innji is sun. His eyes are closed. Kassyki-Ulpa is moon. Her eyes are open.”
Crane began panting in ragged gasps. I finally looked away from the woman, and he met my gaze. His expression was wild. “I heard them say those names every time they cut off one of my…” He suddenly turned and slammed the butt of his gun against the fingers of the Owl Hunter, who had been gripping the hard plastic arm rests of her seat. The insurgent howled and Crane leaned in close to her face. “You sacrificed my fucking fingers to your bullshit gods! I hope you got a good rate. What is it these days? One good harvest per finger? A healthy childbirth? What?!”
Crane was about to strike the Owl Hunter again, but Uriah swooped in and caught his arm. “I’ve got just the job for you, kozel. You would do very well guarding the door, don’t you think?” I believe Uriah underestimated Crane’s knowledge of the Russian language, as I doubt he would have called him a goat if he thought he’d understand it.
Instead of obeying, Crane wrenched his hand away and pressed the gun to Uriah’s chest. “Oh, and how about you? Where did you come from? You’re a fucking spook if I’ve ever seen one.”
“I have no interest in haunting you, so if you’ll please stop pointing your gun at people and guard the door, that would help everyone here immensely.”
“Enough. Both of you,” I said, including Uriah in my admonition mostly for Crane’s benefit. I risked another lengthy look away from the Terekat woman to gauge his state of mind. He appeared to be lost and searching for a direction, so I gave him one. “Steven, take the door. They’ll be here any second.”
He was clearly determined to dislike Uriah, but he was still willing to listen to me. Crane shuffled over to the door and held out his gun, alternating between the Owl Hunter and the woman. Uriah took off his coat and began binding the Owl Hunter’s arms behind the chair with it, and I approached the uplink controls. Although Uriah had the USB drive and likely the private callsign of Minister Truong, we had another wordless agreement that he would handle the insurgents, considering the difficulties of subduing two people with a lacerated hand. Telling Crane to tie them up was out of the question.
Fortunately, I’d taken a course in military communications as part of my intelligence training, but it still took some time to get the console up and running. There were a selection of preset codes for various receivers around Minervan territory, most of them at headquarters. I chose the callsign OCU and opened a connection. The large screen over my head lit up, displaying a flat blue image for a moment before the receiver picked up.
The face on the screen wasn’t that of an Oculus clerk at Minerva HQ. It was a young Aegis soldier crouched in a large green tent. Over his shoulder, I could see the sunset stabbing orange rays through swirling desert sands.
“Come in, Oscar Alpha 212,” the soldier said. He peered at me in duplicate from the large screen above us and the small screen at the console. I was frozen in confusion, wondering if I’d somehow selected the wrong code and what, if anything, the soldier could see on the other end. “Please identify yourself, over.”
“Th…this is Cadet First Class Thalia Gordon. Please identify.”
“This is Victor Kilo. We intercepted your emergency signal. 8th Company is currently holding perimeter around Oasis.” The communications officer looked away from the screen, then quickly looked back. “Standby for Victor Kilo Actual.”
My confusion quickly devolved into panic. I had forgotten that it was common practice for any Aegis unit responding to a crisis to intercept emergency transmissions, but I had to wonder if this was merely common practice or an attempt to stop up information leaks. If it was the former, we could still potentially send Uriah’s video files through the uplink computer, but if it was the latter, then I was sure the 8th Company would intercept the data transfer as well.
The communications officer got up and walked out of view. In the ensuing silence, Crane shouted, “Someone’s coming!” just before a heavy thud shook the door. I was barely paying attention. I was fixated on the empty tent rippling under the force of the wind outside. Then, Victor Kilo Actual stepped onto the screen, and my worst fears were confirmed.
“This is Victor Kilo Actual,” General Fionn Okane said, pulling up a small folding chair and sinking back into it. The Terekat woman choked back a sob next to me. I had seen General Okane in person once before, at an AOA seminar. He’d given us a lecture on the importance of unity, the singular opportunity we’d been given as soldiers of Aegis to join the largest family on Earth. He’d spoken about our duty as the shields of Minerva, to protect the seeds of the old world until they could blossom once more. His voice had an unhurried, slow explosiveness to it, a deep honeyed bass that he’d draw out on occasion in a subtle vibrato. Listening to it, I’d had the impression of a seven foot giant, barrel-chested and square-jawed.
Then I would look down from the slides of his presentation and remember that he was barely five foot six, with a narrow head the color and texture of dried meat. It was almost as if his voice existed separately from the man that projected it. As if there were a massive spirit possessing that little body, animating its mouth and releasing itself casually, in hypnotic bursts of language, into the world. At the time, I wondered what my second father would have thought of Fionn Okane. He’d written extensively about the separation of a Voice from the physical self. He thought it could only be achieved through writing, but that was only because he had never met an orator like the Khan.
And now I was staring at him, face to face. The patriarch of the largest family on Earth, who fed his children on flesh and blood. The shield of Minerva, who protected the old world by crushing any hope of a new world. His decorated uniform was unbuttoned at the neck, and a pair of large aviator sunglasses obscured his eyes, but it wasn’t the eyes I worried about.
“Give me the sit-rep, Cadet,” said the voice. I said nothing, and instead tried to swallow away my fear. “How’s your day been?”
I knew that was an Aegis code. It meant: Are you under duress? I couldn’t muster the courage to lie to him, and I was even more terrified of the truth. I wondered if he could hear the pounding at the door.
“More incoming!” Crane shouted. Okane’s jaw worked back and forth as he studied me. I felt certain he was pulling the traitorous thoughts straight from my head. Then, suddenly, Uriah stepped forward and tapped the console screen. The screen went black, and I exhaled sharply.
“Why the fuck did you do that?” Crane asked.
“Did you absorb nothing about the situation earlier?” Uriah shot back. He pulled out his USB drive and plugged it into the computer.
“I don’t care what you think he did! We need help, and we need it now.” Crane approached us with his right hand tucked behind his back and a haunted expression on his face. “I’m not gonna let them take me again.”
I saw that he meant it, but I also saw that there was only one way out of the satellite uplink.
“Steven, give me the gun,” I said, allowing that foreign tenderness back into my voice. I leaned the TANTALUS rifle against the control console and held out my right hand.
“You don’t understand,” he said, his voice breaking. He opened his mouth to speak, but instead he pressed the gun to his own head, just under his chin. It was one last attempt to cling to his old life, to die with happiness and wholeness still warm in his brain. My maternal instincts fired again, and my hand shot out faster than I’d ever moved before. I snatched the gun from his hand before he could pull the trigger, and he immediately burst into tears.
“Uriah, tell me they’re not blocking the signal,” I murmured, not looking away from Crane’s collapsing face.
“Would you like me to lie to you?” he replied. “I can’t connect to a single outside network.”
“Fuck it all,” I growled, stepping around Crane and throwing the handgun into the corner. “We surrender!”
Behind me, I heard moaning, unhinged laughter. The pounding at the door paused for a moment, just as I reached the other end of the room, and I took the opportunity to speak again in Kyrgyz. “We want to help you! We surrender!”
I glanced back at Uriah and Crane. Uriah had taken the magazine from his assault rifle and thrown both pieces of the gun to opposite sides of the room. He was currently holding his arm around Crane’s shoulders, likely as much for stability as to ensure that Crane didn’t try to pick up the T45. It was laying on the counter on his right side, and I felt confident he wouldn’t try to pick it up with his ruined right hand. Uriah nodded at me, and I placed my hand over the keypad by the door.
“I’m opening the door. Don’t shoot!” Yelling sent electric aches through my jaw, lighting up each individual tooth with pain, but I needed to be clear. Our lives depended on it. I hit the door release, and promptly held up my hands. Outside, there were six Owl Hunters with assault rifles trained on my chest, and one of them was wearing the remaining Hercules suit. That uncertain instant, as I stood balanced between life and death, knocked the wind from my lungs. Any second, I expected the Owl Hunters to open fire. Instead, they rushed into the room, and the power armored Hunter grabbed my wrists.
“We need to speak to Bakiyev,” I said. “We want to help you stop the General.” A crushing weight rammed into the back of my right knee, and I felt my joint pop out violently. I screamed and fell to my knees, which only screwed the pain in tighter. While the armored Owl Hunter held me down, another insurgent approached me and held an assault rifle to my head.
“Please,” I murmured, gasping for breath. “We want to help you.” I could hear Crane sobbing behind me, but they sounded like tears of gratitude.
“Wait,” the Terekat woman said. She was speaking in the Owl Hunters’ modified form of Kyrgyz, but the word was similar enough to the standard language that I still understood the meaning. The rifle barrel hovered next to my ear as she spoke, though I could no longer follow what she was saying. My mind wandered, delirious from the pain. I knew my knee had been dislocated, but by landing on it, I’d at least managed to pop it back in. It would start to swell soon, and just the act of walking would be excruciating without crutches. Earlier in the day, I wondered what sort of creature this experience would make of me if I survived. Now, I had some idea of what I would be: an invalid. A vegetable, unable to move or speak. The thought of surviving at all was becoming dimmer and less appealing by the second.
Then, I was lifted effortlessly by the armored Hunter, going briefly airborne as the insurgent was likely unused to the enhanced strength of the Hercules suit. I landed with all my weight on my left foot, trying to keep my right knee as still as possible. However, the Owl Hunter pushed me forward, and as I stepped on my right leg to balance, I buckled and cried out again. I was able to grab the door frame to steady myself, but the pain sent shivers up and down my aching body. For a horrible moment, I was bent over against the door frame, staring down at the punctured corpse of the Owl Hunter in the hall. All the lives that I’d been hiding in my sleeves spilled out onto the floor, and I could no longer look away from what I’d done.
I wanted to think of my pain as a kind of penance for those vanished lives, a balm to cure my cognitive dissonance, but there was nothing redemptive in the mad hooked claw of agony ripping through my muscles and my nerves. I know too much about pain to fool myself into seeing wisdom or absolution in its embrace, no matter how lost or guilty I may feel. Pain is merely an ordeal to survive. Wisdom and penance must come from within, and only when we find none in ourselves do we imagine it in such empty poetic gestures.
I gagged on the pain and the stench of blood, but then the Owl Hunter in Hercules armor scooped me up from behind and cradled me in his arms like a bride. I felt weightless and light-headed, but the smell faded away and took the sick feeling with it as the Owl Hunter walked out of the satellite uplink. He carried me to the lift, followed by three other Hunters behind Crane and Uriah.
The lift flew up the spine of the control tower and opened onto a breathtaking sight. The command center was laid out before us, and the windows surrounding the dome-shaped room provided an unobstructed view of the sunset sinking beneath a distant mountain range. We were above the larger geodesic dome protecting Terekat, and as we were marched into the room, I could see the silvery expanse of the dome around us, like a shimmering lake of metal. From the outside, it was completely opaque, and seemingly impenetrable.
Standing before the window, Ra’Doman Aibek Bakiyev was staring down at a console with his hands tucked behind his back. He was even larger up close, possibly due to the dark voluminous robe draped around his body. His hands were weathered and slender, reminding me once again of an undead priest. On the back of his robe, I saw that he had a horizontal blue line embroidered into it, with smaller lines radiating out of it on either side. It resembled a closed eye, the twin to match an open red eye. I still don’t understand why the closed eye, which was supposed to represent the sun god Kassyk-Innji, was a cool blue while the moon goddess’s open eye was a fiery red.
The Owl Hunter carrying me asked Bakiyev a question before roughly dropping me onto my feet. I stumbled and leaned against a bank of computers, trying to keep the weight off my right leg. Bakiyev paused for a moment, letting the howl of the wind outside the command center fill in the empty space. Then, he unfurled his ghoulish, lanky arms and pivoted to face us.
“So you want to help us,” Bakiyev said. “You must have found the truth.”
He was wrong about that. We hadn’t found the truth yet. At least, not all of it.
My continued investigations have revealed more evidence confirming the claims of this account. But I am not yet willing to condemn Okane, Aegis, or Minerva. Not until I’ve discovered the truth.