The three Owl Hunters behind us backed away, leaving us in a line before Ra’Doman Bakiyev as if he were a drill sergeant and we were awaiting discipline. “I have to know something,” I said to him, and he turned his head slowly toward me with well-oiled poise. “Who are you, really? Who are the Owl Hunters?”
“So you have not found the truth after all,” Bakiyev said. “I thought Yastreb would tell you himself.”
“Who?” Crane asked. His voice was tiny, as if everything about him, including his voice, was retreating into himself for fear of further torture. I already knew who Bakiyev was referring to. I turned to glare at Uriah, standing on the other side of Crane and pointedly avoiding my gaze.
“Yastreb can’t be trusted with the truth, it seems,” I said, lacing poisoned barbs into each word. “Care to explain, Yastreb? Care to fill us in on who or what the fuck you really are?”
“I don’t believe he knows himself,” Bakiyev said, before Uriah could reply.
“I can keep track of my own identities, thank you very much,” he huffed. “To be honest, I was hoping to avoid this moment.”
“Why, because you thought I might order you killed again?”
“That is precisely why.”
“Uriah!” I snapped. “Yastreb. Whoever you are, please. I need to know the truth.”
Against all my better judgment, I’d come to trust the man standing across from me, and it occurred to me then that I never should have betrayed my own instincts. I should have expected smokescreens and double identities from an agent of Oculus. Still, he’d cracked open the stone I’d built around myself, and it was too late to seal up the crack. It was too late to start hating him again.
“Do you know why our two branches are at each others’ throats so often, Thalia?” Uriah asked me. He still didn’t take his eyes off of Bakiyev. “It’s because our ideologies are polar opposites. Aegis is concerned only with protection, while Oculus is concerned only with expansion. Every time an Oculus diplomatic mission is sent out to broker an alliance with a new village or township, Aegis attempts to stop it. Your generals tell the regents that we are already spread too thin, that we should be building borders instead of promising food that we don’t have and soldiers we can’t spare to nomad tribes who live too far away.
Nevermind that Minerva has stabilized an entire region thanks to the diplomats of Oculus. Nevermind that, if the generals of Aegis had their way, Cadet Crane would still be living underground and neither Thalia nor I would have ever heard of a thing called Minerva.”
“So now you’re the heroes, huh?” Crane scoffed. “I knew you were a fucking spook.”
“Don’t you worry, kozel. No one is getting out of this a hero. You see, another thing that Aegis doesn’t understand about Oculus is that our branch operates on a competitive business model. To advance, an agent must distinguish oneself, usually through acquiring new towns regardless of whether we can support them or not. Some Oculus agents are more aggressive than others, and if Aegis will not allow Oculus to expand its domain, then our agents will find a way around them. That is exactly what happened to our towns in the outzones.”
“We don’t have any towns in the outzones,” Crane said.
“Not officially, no,” I pointed out.
“Well done. As usual, Thalia is keeping up. We don’t officially have any affiliated towns in the outzones. We never have. However, a handful of agents looking to improve their stock ventured out beyond Terekat between the years of 2080 and 2083. They rounded up the local nomad tribes, promising them homes and amenities beyond their wildest imaginations. They brought just enough manpower and raw materials with them to establish a set of towns for the nomads, which they could document and bring back to headquarters. All of the agents involved were promoted and congratulated for expanding our territory into previously uncharted areas.
Of course, the towns were so far into the desert that Minerva couldn’t sustain them, especially since they were never officially sanctioned by the regents. The towns collapsed within ten years, and the nomads were forced to return to their old lives.”
“Not an easy thing to do after our tribes had grown so large in your towns,” Bakiyev spoke up. “Desert living is only possible in small groups. Many died in the first year after the towns were abandoned.”
“And a man who has never known comfort can do without, but a sip of the sweet life at Minerva’s well can drive someone mad when the well dries up.”
“Do not try to say that this is about soft beds and solar electricity, Yastreb. This is about the souls of the unavenged,” Bakiyev said, maintaining his weary, methodical tone. The story sounded all too familiar to me. Oculus diplomat makes empty promises, empty promises tear community apart, the end. Only this time, the consequences were far more horrifying than the hot death of Gordon’s Library. The grudge that these nomads held against Minerva had lasted for years. I wondered how many lives had been lost for the sake of a promotion.
“What’s your angle, then?” I asked Uriah.
“I’m getting to that, dear Thalia. All of this took place under the previous Minister of Diplomacy. When Minister Truong, my superior, ousted the previous administration in 2094, he discovered what they had been up to. The agents responsible were never punished, and the empty towns were ignored and left to rot. Since the early 2090s, there had been reports of increased raider activity in the outzones near Terekat. General Okane used the rumors of a barbarian army massing in the desert to leverage the creation of this outpost. Minister Truong knew this supposed barbarian army had to be connected to the displaced nomads Oculus was responsible for, so he sent me to investigate.”
“It sounds like the General was trying to clean up your mess,” Crane said.
“We were no army,” Bakiyev interrupted. “Not then. We stole from Minerva’s towns and supply trucks, but we did not kill anyone. We were trying to feed our families, and Okane hunted us for that. He hunted us until there were not too many families to feed anymore.”
“I came to them as a fellow nomad with a grudge against Minerva,” Uriah said. “I called myself Yastreb then. At first, I only intended to discover what the nomads were really doing in the outzones. I would have gone undetected if it had only been that simple. But when I arrived, the nomads were making plans to infiltrate Okane’s new stronghold. They went in to sabotage the Khan’s operations, but instead they came back with horror stories related to them by the townspeople. Thalia, you can imagine what those stories meant to me.”
He was referring, of course, to his childhood abuse at the hands of Rurik the slaver. I still can’t say for certain that the story he told me was true, but whenever I begin to doubt it, I think of this moment, and the unusual gravity to his voice.
“So did you plan this attack yourself, or did Bakiyev help?” I snapped.
“I told you before, I didn’t know this attack was coming. I became determined to help the nomads expose General Okane’s crimes against humanity, but I had no intention of starting an insurrection. I merely wanted to help them obtain evidence of the situation in Terekat, which I would pass on to the proper authorities. That was my undoing, as my intimate knowledge of Minervan technology and politics revealed my true nature. It turns out the abused and forgotten people of Kyrgyzstan do not take to Oculus as they once did.”
“They do not, and I am waiting for you to tell me why I should spare you now,” Bakiyev said.
“Because without us, the General is going to kill you and bury Minerva’s sins forever. Those weapons you’re trying to smuggle out of Terekat in beer cases will be found, and sooner or later the townspeople will be punished for this.”
“We saw your people in the tower database. What do you intend to do with the evidence they’ve found?” I asked.
“We planned to send it to all of your towns, so they could know the truth about the owls that nest in their homes,” Bakiyev replied. “Some of our people were trained to handle your machines, after all. But when we had the proof we needed, our computers were blocked.”
“Yes, I was afraid of that,” Uriah said. “Okane is a man with a guilty conscience. He may not know why you’re really here, but he’s not taking any chances.”
“We could smuggle out some flash drives,” I said. “Put us in the shelter with the others. Okane may suspect the townspeople, but he won’t suspect us.”
“He wouldn’t, if not for that uncomfortable staring contest you had with him,” Uriah pointed out. My spirits fell as I recalled the way he’d worked his jaw back and forth, chewing on my suspicious silence.
“He didn’t see me,” Crane pointed out. I was startled by his input, as he’d gone silent and retreated into himself for some time. I could practically see the stone he was building around his sensitive core. I hadn’t expected him to offer his help to the Owl Hunters so readily, but in the hollowness they’d carved out of him, it seemed he’d decided not to fill it with hatred.
“He’s got a point,” Uriah said. “They’ll search Thalia when they come, and they’ll search me on principle alone, but they might not search Cadet Crane.”
“And if they do, what’s your backup?” I asked Bakiyev.
“We have several memory sticks hidden in boxes. The people of Terekat will try to send them out after Minerva retakes the town.”
“Okane will find them,” Uriah said. “Just like he’ll find the guns. He’ll turn this town inside out, and he’ll do it twice over to anything that leaves the dome. I don’t think you understand how this man works. He has too much to lose, and not a single moral restraint to hold him back.”
“Where do you think I have been, Yastreb? I know very well how this man works. This is why we have to try everything. We have to show the truth of Minerva to the desert people. If Okane kills every one of us, down to the last child, it does not matter. We will win.”
The clarity and conviction with which he said this brought a nagging concern to my attention. “Is that how this ends? Did you know all along?”
Bakiyev did not immediately respond to me. Instead, he droned an order to the three Owl Hunters behind us. The man behind Uriah seemed to argue back, but Bakiyev cut him off with a wave and a sharp tone. Then, the Owl Hunters turned and filed into the lift. When the lift had gone, Bakiyev spoke to us again.
“I knew many of us would die. Some will take off their masks and hide with the people of Terekat, but many will have to die. This is to put Minerva at ease.”
“So you’re not going to try for the tunnel exit in the shelter,” Uriah said.
“The Owl Khan knows of this tunnel. His birds are already there, but my people filled this tunnel with explosives to slow them.”
“If they hide with the townspeople, you’re putting them all at risk.”
“It does not matter. We will win.”
“Who are the weapons for, then? The ones in the brewery?” I asked.
“They are for the revolution to come. This is how we arm the towns that we inspire to revolt.”
“Do your people know that they came here to die?” Uriah asked, jerking his head toward the lift.
“Yes, they know.” Bakiyev looked away from us, and a pained expression fluttered at the edges of his sunken cheekbones. “This is my weakness. I sent them away because I do not want them to know how I die.”
All three of us were silent, all most likely unable to formulate a proper question or comment to prompt the skeletal giant. I thought I could see where he intended to go, and I dared not voice my theory.
“I know they will try to take me alive, but I am a coward at heart, and I will not allow to be captured. Still, I cannot kill myself. It is forbidden.”
“Forbidden by who? The sun and moon?” I asked. I knew the burden he was about to lay on us, and I couldn’t help the anger seeping into my voice.
“Yes,” Bakiyev said. “The true gods that all people of the desert have worshipped since the old gods were shown false. Okane tells us our gods are false, that only the old gods are true. But if the old gods are true, then why did they do nothing when the world ended? Why are they true and our gods false when we can look up and see our gods watching us every minute? Kassyki-Ulpa does not allow us to take our own lives. It is forbidden.” Minerva is supposed to adhere to a policy of religious freedom, but clearly General Okane did not believe that policy extended to new religions. It may be one of the Khan’s many idiosyncrasies, but I have to wonder how the rest of Minerva’s ruling body would respond to a new religion. Our organization reveres the old world with an almost single-minded fixation, and the suppression of this celestial religion could merely be a symptom of that.
“It is fortunate you came. I would ask one of my people to take my life, but this would be difficult for them. You are owls, and destruction is your nature.”
“No,” I said, my voice weak. I knew I couldn’t deny his statement, not after everything I’d learned about the destruction the owls had brought to the people of the desert, but I had to refuse his request for euthanasia. The very thought made me sick.
“You, then,” Bakiyev said, looking at Crane. He reached behind his back and picked up a pistol from the command console. A splash of dried blood on the barrel identified it as the same pistol Bakiyev had used to execute Commander Harker. “It is best that you do it. You will carry the evidence, and Okane will not search the hero who kills the revolt leader.”
I heard a sharp exhalation whistle through Crane’s nose, and then he gave a curt nod. After all he’d suffered at the hands of Bakiyev’s Owl Hunters, I wasn’t surprised at how quickly he agreed to the request. The old man turned the pistol around and held it out to Crane, who stepped forward and took the gun from his hand. He knelt down, bowing his bald head toward the floor. I should have been immune to this small tragedy. He had asked us to kill him, and considering what would happen to him if the Khan managed to capture him alive, it would be a merciful end. Still, my heart beat quickened and a numbing sensation wrapped all my nerves in cotton. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t will my muscles to budge.
Crane pressed the barrel of the gun against the flesh of Bakiyev’s head. I saw his scalp bunch up around the metal tip. Then, there was a flash, a sharp crack, and a spurt of blood. Bakiyev slumped forward, and his head came to rest on the toes of Crane’s right boot. He sighed, an empty sound devoid of either satisfaction or remorse.
Then Crane turned and shot Uriah through the heart.
A small, strangled sound escaped my lips. Blood was welling up beneath the white of his shirt, and he turned his head to face me. His sad eyes spoke to mine, and we shared our last silent sentence together. I could have loved you. Crane fired twice more, ripping into Uriah’s chest and toppling him backward into a bank of computers. I tried to speak, but the things that emerged from my depths were not speech. The howl was clawing up my throat again, leaking out through clenched and aching teeth. Crane gave the same neutral sigh he’d made after shooting Bakiyev and stepped over the corpse to reach the command console.
“I’m gonna pretend that you weren’t serious when you said you wanted to help them,” he said to me. “When the cavalry comes, I’m gonna tell them this was your idea. The spook had you hostage and he knew the duress code, so that’s why you didn’t say anything to the General. That’s how we’re gonna make it out of this.”
His words forced the howl back down, but instead of escaping, it possessed me. I pushed off the computer bank I’d been clinging to and reached to grab his mutilated hand, but when I put weight on my right leg, I collapsed, landing on the floor next to Bakiyev’s corpse.
“I don’t know what that little Oculus bitch put into your head, T.” Crane looked away from the console for a moment, and there was confusion on his face. “You’re better than this.”
“Better than what?” I hissed, chest heaving as I tried to stand. “A cold-fucking-blooded killer?”
“This is our job!” Crane exploded, swinging his mangled hand wildly. “Did you forget what we are? We’re the shield. We protect Minerva. We protect each other. Did you even think about what Bakiyev was saying? He wanted a revolution. He wanted to turn our own people against us!”
“They’re not our people if we treat them like property,” I said. “And just what part of Minerva deserves protecting?”
“I thought loyalty meant something to you,” Crane replied. He was bent over the console again, tapping at a touch screen with the ring finger of his right hand. He still clutched the pistol in his left. “You know, you treat me like shit for years, and I just let it slide.”
“That’s loyalty, Thalia. I didn’t leave you ’cause you turned me down. I didn’t care what you said. I made a commitment to myself, to be there for a lonely girl who couldn’t help but push everyone away. I stand by the people in my life. I don’t care whether they deserve it or not.”
I hobbled forward, shuffling on my left leg and dragging the right behind me. Once I was within arm’s reach, I threw myself against Crane’s back, reaching around and raking my nails along the raw flesh of his fingers. He screamed and shoved me away with his shoulder. I tripped over Bakiyev’s corpse and ended up on my back, staring up at the vaulted metal ceiling. Tears were blurring the last rays of sunlight as they glinted off the alloy. I could hear Crane swearing in a high-pitched, canine mewl. A burst of static came from the console, and panic laced itself through my fury.
“Victor Kilo. Fuck! Victor Kilo, come in. This is Cadet First Class Steven Crane.”
“No!” I cried, but Crane ignored me.
“This is Victor Kilo Actual,” Fionn Okane’s molasses tones filled the command center. “We’re all waiting for some news, over.”
“General Okane, the hostage situation is a hoax, sir. The Owl Hunters and the townspeople are working together. They’re trying to steal classified intel off your databases in order to incite a revolt, sir.”
A beat. Then, “How do they intend to disseminate this intel, Cadet Crane?”
“They were trying to transmit to other towns in our AOI, sir. Failing that, they intended to smuggle out flash drives hidden around town.”
“Are there any Minervan personnel besides yourself left inside the dome?”
“Yes, sir. All Minervan personnel are being held inside the underground shelter.”
There was another pause. I began to pull myself backward, fighting back a gasp every time my bisected hand pressed against the floor. I kept my eyes trained on Crane’s back at all times, focusing on his hunched silhouette so fiercely that my eyeballs ached. I knew I would crawl right past Uriah’s body, and I willed myself not to look at it with every ounce of strength I had left.
“I’m opening the gates now, sir. How soon can we expect a cleanup crew?”
For several long seconds, General Okane said nothing. In that span, I was able to haul my numb and broken body all the way to the lift. Quietly, I reached up and pressed the call button.
“Thank you, cadet. Victor Kilo Actual, over and out.”
“Say again, General. Did not receive your orders, sir. Please say again.”
Crane still didn’t understand. There was one piece of himself that he’d managed to cling to, like a life raft in a drowning sea. He believed that the blood bond of Aegis was inviolate. He couldn’t comprehend the idea that the patriarch of the largest family on Earth might consider some of his children expendable.
Even as the first shell exploded against the side of the dome, I could tell he didn’t understand. He still stood there, staring out the window. Then another shell landed near the command center, blasting the window inward and throwing him off his feet. I was bracing myself against the doors of the lift when the artillery struck, trying desperately to stand. The doors kept me upright, and I managed to stand with my weight on my left leg just as the lift chimed.
Crane looked up at me, his face cut into a bloody jigsaw of glass shards. He understood then. He knew what loyalty really meant. It was a rope to tie the gullible into bondage and, if necessary, hang them. I felt the lift slide open behind me, and I gripped the door frame. Crane rolled onto his stomach and raised the handgun that had already claimed three unarmed men. I thrust my left leg inside the lift and tried to swing the rest of my body around it, into the cover of the blind spot behind the lift controls. The pistol cracked as I turned, and a hammer blow rocked my body. Pain seemed to split me in half, and my vision swam as I hung onto the door frame, pressing my back against the lift controls. My side was wet at the epicenter of the pain, and I could see a spray of blood against the far wall of the lift.
I had no time to contemplate the wound. I turned and slapped my right palm against the bottom of the control board without noticing which call button I’d hit. I needed to go down, and that was as precise as my body was able to be at the moment. Bullets continued to pepper the lift, but I was tucked safely within and the doors were closing. Crane screamed as they shut, and the lift began its smooth descent down the control tower. Another artillery shell rocked the entire outpost, and then two more in rapid succession. The lights in the lift flickered, and the entire tower rocked. I could feel it in the shuddering metal walls around me.
The bombardment was a welcome distraction. I was even glad of the hole Crane had torn through me in his single moment of clarity. Anything to keep my thoughts from Uriah, lying cold on the floor of the command center, body lighting up with the flames of Okane’s artillery. I was able to just clutch my wound and lean against the wall of the lift, listening to the roar of the shells as they ripped into the geodesic dome above Terekat.
I was perhaps four of five levels from the bottom when an explosion severed the lift cable, and the machine entered freefall. Emergency brakes immediately locked in, and I was thrown onto my uninjured side in the center of the lift. The brakes slowed my descent, but I hit the bottom of the shaft with an impact that seemed to strike at every injury I’d sustained simultaneously. An alarm turned the lift a bloody shade of red, and the doors of the underground level opened above me. The lift wasn’t lined up properly, and there was a gap between the floor and the underground level that I didn’t have the strength to climb.
I managed to crawl to the lip and throw my arms over it, raising my head just high enough to peek out at the underground level. The emergency shelter gaped open before me with horizontal metal jaws. I could see safety just a few meters away, but it took everything in me just to hang onto the lip. In the darkness of the shelter, there were countless heads and bodies packed together. Men clutching women. Women clutching small children. I knew my orphaned boy was in there somewhere. Several Owl Hunters were waving townspeople inside, throwing off their masks and weapons in the process. I don’t know how they had intended to dispose of them before the sky began to fall, but in their state of panic, they merely dropped their equipment on the ground outside the shelter. Not that it would make a difference now.
“Thalia!” I heard a cry. The voice sounded familiar, but that seemed impossible. Everyone I knew had died. Then, a figure distinguished itself from the mass in the shelter, and Luther Mensah ran past the Owl Hunters by the door. They paid no attention to him. I would have wept at the sight of him, had I not been shocked into a sort of neutral stupor. He hooked his arms under mine and pulled me from the lift, gasping when he saw the bloody handkerchief around my palm, the swollen knee, and the wet hole in my stained-crimson shirt. He understood the gravity of the situation, and he didn’t ask me about any of it.
With Luther’s help, I hobbled into the shelter just as the Owl Hunters started to close the doors. He led me through the mass of bodies to the wall, where several injured Minervans were propped up. I saw Lieutenant West, though his eyes were closed and he was mumbling what looked like a prayer. Luther set me against the wall and wrapped my torso in cloth that he’d apparently scrounged from the other hostages. Once he was finished, he offered me some painkillers from the bottle that the barmaid had given to Lieutenant West. I swallowed them readily, though they stuck in my parched throat.
For what seemed like hours, we sat and listened to the pounding bombardment above us. Occasionally, we would hear a crackle, and then a colossal impact would rock the shelter and stutter the lights. It sounded like glaciers calving on top of us, though it was undoubtedly the dome coming apart and falling in sheets to the ground. At one point, a twisting metal shriek sounded just above us, and a sustained rumble signaled the collapse of the control tower. Another interminable wait passed, and the bombardment continued. The shells sounded much closer than before, and the larger impacts had stopped completely. I assumed this was because the dome had fully collapsed and the 8th Company was now bombing only ruins.
After awhile, the shelling ceased, though not before power to the shelter lights had been knocked out. Only a meager set of backup lights gave any sort of definition to the darkness, illuminating the shaking heads and glistening eyes of Minervan and Kyrgyzstani alike. In the silence that followed the shelling, I expected Luther or Cowboy to ask me what had happened, but neither of them said a word.
The tense silence was broken by a mechanical whirring from the far end of the shelter, and suddenly a crack of light stabbed into the darkness. There was another door on the other side of the shelter, and it opened slowly to reveal the tunnel that Uriah and Bakiyev had mentioned. Two Aegis APCs sat with their headlamps trained on the shelter, and as we blinked away the brightness, a team of armored figures marched past the vehicles into the room. I could tell from their angular silhouettes that they were wearing Professor Garza’s latest Hercules suits. My emotional paralysis lifted, and I began to hyperventilate.
“Shhhhh,” Luther whispered, as if talking to a child. Perhaps he thought my mind had gone. “The good guys are here.”
As he spoke, I saw General Okane’s special forces lifting the townspeople to their feet and shoving them toward the far wall. They swept across the shelter, grabbing anyone who didn’t look like a member of Minerva and herding them into a crowd. They were shouting, though their voices took on a mechanical buzz through the helmet rebreathers. One of the figures in the crowd of civilians stood up, and I saw that it was the last of the armored Owl Hunters. He opened fire on the spec ops squad, but he hadn’t picked up a TANTALUS rifle, and the rounds from his rifle bounced off their armor. One of Okane’s troops had a T45, and he fired a single shot that burst through the Owl Hunter’s helmet and rained gore over the screaming civilians.
“What are they doing?” Luther muttered. The spec ops team had reached us by this point, still herding the townspeople and the plainclothes Owl Hunters against the wall. Luther got up and approached one of Okane’s men. “What are you doing?”
“Please step back. These people are all insurgents,” the soldier said.
“Hey!” Cowboy shouted, trying to stand. “There’s children in there, goddamn it!”
“Please evacuate to the APCs. You will be debriefed shortly.”
“Like hell I will!” Cowboy continued, leaning and holding onto his wounded leg. “You better debrief me right now before I whoop your ass.”
The armored soldier ignored him and joined his squad on the firing line. I sat transfixed, while Luther and Cowboy yelled at them to stop. Most of the Minervan personnel were moving to the APCs, eyes averted, but there were others who sat or stood in shock.
It was the gunfire that did it. The flickering eruptions of light, the screaming of the civilians and the pounding of bullets against flesh. I felt the howl ripple up my throat and I let it loose, shrieking a tempest of such violent emotion that my entire body became one shuddering conduit of agony. The howl rolled on and on as the townspeople were cut down, until an Aegis soldier with a medic’s armband rushed to my side and picked me up without examining my injuries. I felt the howl dissipate, leaving a burning in my throat and a metallic taste in my mouth. I hung in the medic’s arms, gasping, and as I looked back over his shoulder, I saw Luther shoving one of the spec ops soldiers. It was too late. The townspeople had been massacred, and the Owl Hunters along with them. Still, the soldier reared the butt of his rifle back and slammed it into Luther’s gut.
That was the last I saw of the shelter. We passed by one of the APCs, and then all I could see over the medic’s shoulder was a blinding white light.
I am conflicted. One the one hand, I understand the need to maintain law and order, to protect the best interests of Minerva and the peaceful status quo we have created out of the apocalyptic ashes of the War. But on the other, I cannot in good conscience do anything else but condemn Okane’s massacre of this people. Assuming that this account is honest. I have just about managed to access the last pieces of original records and data I need to conclusively prove or disprove this account.