I spent days in a sedated torpor. From the moment I was strapped into a gurney in back of the APC, I was fed intravenously on a numbing chemical diet. The pain that had become my natural state of being was washed away in a cool obliterating wave. I’d stepped outside the language of time, into that unbroken wilderness of being, and nothing mattered anymore. At one point, I thought I might be dead, and decided that I didn’t mind. After the seemingly endless physical and emotional hellstorm I had endured, it was such an indescribable relief to let go of it all. It was the first time I’d ever experienced such absolute peace.
As with all moments of happiness, it proved to be just as fleeting as it was illusory. My first unclouded memory from my time in hospital was of a balding Glaucus medical doctor named Juergen Schnell. He had a habit of pacing the sterile white room that had become my home, and I had to follow him back and forth from my bed.
“Well, you didn’t bleed to death, Ms. Gordon,” he’d said to me. “And you didn’t go into septic shock. If I were a priest, I’d call that a miracle, but I have an X-ray machine. I don’t have to believe in miracles.” Dr. Schnell paced up to my bedside and tapped a pen against my left side, just under where I’d been shot. “The bullet went foomf right through your hip there. Tore into the oblique and exited out the lat. Just missed the large intestine. You can call that a miracle if you’d like, but I call that good luck.”
My throat was parched and still raw, but my mind was clear for the first time in days, and with clarity came the awful responsibility of filling in the blanks, even if it meant dismantling the total peace that had consumed me. “How long has it been?”
“Three days,” Dr. Schnell said. He returned to his holding pattern around my bed. “You’ve been keeping us busy with that laundry list of grievous bodily injuries. I mean, we got a few injured personnel from Oasis, but nothing that exciting. We patched up your hip and your left palm on day one, gave you a blood transfusion and reset your jaw on day two, and today, if you’re feeling up to it, we can work on the torn ligaments in your knee.”
“Where…” I began, but the sandpaper coating my throat made it impossible to continue.
“Minerva headquarters,” Dr. Schnell replied. He made a pass over to my bedside and handed me a covered plastic cup. My first gulp of water burned like vodka. “So how about it? Feel like a little knee surgery today?”
“I’d best get it over with,” I said. My jaw still ached, but it was at least moving normally and the clicking had stopped.
“Wunderbar,” he said. “I’ll go over the details with you in about an hour. I just wanted to get that squared away before we brought in your visitor.”
“Who?” There were very few people left alive that I wanted to see.
“Why, it’s the man of the hour,” Dr. Schnell said. “General Okane’s been up my ass without an endoscope for the last three days, and now that you’re stable, I figured you could help me get him out of my ass before I develop a limp.” I swallowed hard, and the numb sensation weighing down my limbs took on a new, horrible connotation. I was trapped. If I refused to see him, he would know I was guilty of something. If I let him in, I wasn’t sure I could keep myself together, and there was no way of knowing what sort of paranoid accusations General Okane would level at me. My fear must have betrayed some hint on my face, because Dr. Schnell finally stopped pacing and his tone became serious. “Of course, if you’re not ready to see him, I can tell him you’re still asleep.”
“No,” I said hastily. “I’m alright. Let him in.”
Dr. Schnell darted out of the room, and my right fist bunched up under the crisp bedsheets. I focused all my hatred and my fear into that one fist, hoping to keep it balled up and hidden from sight. When the door slid open again and General Okane stepped into the room wearing an immaculate dress uniform, I had to sink my fingernails into my palm.
“Good morning, cadet,” he said, flashing a jovial smile. “How’s Juergen treating you? He’s a freaky bastard, but he says you’re gonna make a full recovery, so I guess he’s good for something.”
“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice and my conversation neutral. “I’m doing well. Thank you, sir.”
“That’s good,” Okane said, stepping closer and closer to my bedside. He moved with the same sort of deliberate power with which he spoke, as if the gigantic spirit speaking through his lips were animating the rest of his body as well. “That’s very good. I’ve been making the rounds, checking in on the wounded. You know, Aegis is like a family to me, and it hurt me – it physically hurt me – to hear what those animals did to my family. Do you understand me, cadet?”
“Yes, sir. I went to your lecture last spring.” My fist squeezed ever tighter, and I felt nothing.
Okane barked out a quick laugh, then sat down on a stool next to my bed. His face was mere centimeters from mine, and I could see the startling blue of his eyes set into the wrinkling bronze flesh. “So you know how important my family is to me. You know how relieved I was when I heard my little girl was gonna pull through.”
It took me a moment of loaded silence to realize that he was talking about me. I couldn’t squeeze my fist any tighter, but I tried anyway. A slightly warm, wet feeling hovered just around the senseless nerves of my fingertips. “Thank you, sir.”
“No need for all the formal bullshit. You can call me Fionn. To be honest, Thalia, I’m not just here to check up on you, although I can assure you that your health was, and still is, my first concern.”
That was it. He’d finished playing with me. That was when the game became a hunt.
“I’ve got some loose ends dangling around this whole incident, and I think you can help me tie them up. What were you doing in the satellite uplink at 1930?”
I didn’t have a lie prepared, but the story flowed from me instantaneously. It helped to begin with the truth and gradually add in lies as I went. “I was captured with the rest of the Minervan personnel in Terekat. Before I could be locked in the underground shelter, another captive helped me escape. I found out later he was a secret agent of Oculus named Uriah Noskov. We infiltrated the control tower, hoping to contact the 8th Company and coordinate a rescue mission. When we reached the satellite uplink, Noskov revealed that he was actually working with the insurgents, and he ordered me to lead your men into a trap. I couldn’t respond with the appropriate duress code because Noskov knew all of our codes. I choked, and he killed the signal. The Owl Hunters tortured me, then Noskov shot me and left me for dead. I survived and crawled to the shelter, and that was when the shelling started.”
Okane nodded gravely throughout my story. When I was through, he ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. “I wonder why he would tell you he was a traitor. That doesn’t seem like a smart move to me.”
“He didn’t,” I said. “I figured out he was trying to set a trap.”
“Now that’s not what you said, Thalia,” he pointed out, and his casual cadence was all the more chilling for its lack of urgency. “Some of these pieces in my lap, they just don’t fit. I’ll need you to use more precise language if I’m going to be able to fit them all together.”
I was unable to speak, so I merely bobbed my head in response.
“Do you know why Noskov defected to the insurgents?”
“He never said.”
“Well, color me impressed anyhow. The satellite uplink is twelve stories above the shelter, and you managed to get all the way down there with a busted knee and a hole punched in your side. There’s just one part of the story you left out. Did you know that the townspeople were working with the insurgents?”
“I figured as much. The medic said you screamed like a banshee when my men executed the survivors. Said you nearly blew out his ear drums. I’m sure that was confusing for you, but the truth is, those people were behind it all. Do you have any idea why they might have done it?”
There are loaded questions, and then there are hand grenades molded to resemble words. This was the latter, and one way or another, I had to pass it off with an answer before it exploded in my face. “No, sir.”
“You don’t have any theories. Nothing at all.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You spent more time with the raiders than anyone left alive. You witnessed their whole operation unfolding. Hell, they beat you nearly to death. I would think you’d at least have an opinion.”
“We avoided the Owl Hunters as much as possible. I didn’t see what they were doing.”
“So you never saw these Owl Hunters working together with the citizens of my town.”
“That’s a shame. I’ve been thinking this over for days, and I just can’t understand it. Oasis was our paradigm, the best of everything Minerva has to offer. In our organization’s history, it was the safest, the most comfortable, the most advanced town we ever built. We were bringing a real civilization to the frontier, and this is how they repay us?”
I couldn’t have clenched my fist any tighter, so with nowhere else to go, the rage in me rushed back into my brain and gave me the courage to strike back. “How do you know the townspeople and the Owl Hunters were working together?”
To my disappointment, Okane merely chuckled and continued without skipping a beat. “We received an anonymous transmission about thirty minutes after yours. Another escapee. You don’t know anything about that, either?” I shook my head. “Didn’t think so. Somehow, he’d found out the truth and he told us the whole story before the raiders caught up to him. We knew the real hostages were safe in the underground shelter, so we bombed the place. The raiders had rigged it all up to blow anyway, so I decided to catch the bastards with their pants down.”
He’d had days to rehearse his story, but it was still stunning how naturally the lies flowed from him.
“Now, I understand how traumatic that must have been for you. It’s no wonder you were so upset when my men took care of the traitors. You’re not the only one with a few doubts. I had a talk with one of your friends, a Mark West?”
“We arrived together, yes.” My chest tightened.
“I know, I checked the logs at the motor pool. You signed out a jeep on May 18th with Lieutenant Mark West and Cadet Luther Mensah.” Again, no mention of Crane. He had already been erased from the history books, and Okane wanted me to know it. He wanted me to know how easily he could make a person cease to exist. “Anyhow, I spoke to West, and he was extremely unhappy with the way that whole situation was handled. He wouldn’t hear a word I said, he just kept demanding a transfer to another zone, threatening to tell everyone I killed children.”
To my horror, Okane laughed again. “I don’t know what he’s talking about. We pulled the children out, same as we did for you. Of course I understand why he’s upset and confused, but he’s taking it a little too far. If he wanted a transfer so bad, all he had to do was ask. Once his leg is healed, he’ll get that transfer, but I can guarantee Private West won’t like where he’ll end up.”
I thought I’d misheard him, but there was an unmistakable gleam in his narrow blue eyes. Just out of AOA, Mark West had been a lieutenant for less than a week and he’d already been demoted to private for the crime of attempting to protect the innocent. My appreciation for him swelled as I realized he’d actually meant every word of the toast he’d given at the pub, and my hatred of General Okane had somehow plumbed new depths.
“Luther Mensah, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery,” he said, and the even cadence of his voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. “He caused a scene when my rescue team tried to pull him out, so I let him cool his heels in the stockade overnight. When he was released in the morning, he disappeared. He didn’t return to the AOA barracks. He didn’t stop to collect his things or say goodbye. He just vanished.”
Was this another veiled threat? Did Okane himself cause Luther to “disappear,” or had the massacre at Terekat dismantled his illusions of a soft and comfortable world? Perhaps he’d just walked out of headquarters and washed his hands of the lot of us.
“He didn’t say anything about that,” I told the General, and wondered why the truth sounded less convincing than the lies I’d already given him.
“And yet you were the last person to talk to him before his arrest.”
“We didn’t talk much,” I said. “We were busy being bombed.”
“Considering everything you’ve seen and done, I’m a little surprised at how much you don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Wish I could be more helpful.”
“It’s alright,” he said with a sigh, rising to his feet and smoothing out his dress uniform. I’m quite certain that my relief was palpable, at least until he spoke again. “I just thought you would have some insight, seeing as how you’re one of them.”
“One of who?” I asked, forgetting military etiquette, forgetting self-control, and sounding every bit the caged and frightened animal that I knew I was.
“A refugee. A wild child. I read up on your file. You were born in the ruins, just like they were,” he said. “Why, what did you think I meant?”
“I’m sorry, I…didn’t understand the question.”
“It wasn’t a question.”
My civil facade was cracking, and with the raw emotion below it threatening to spill out, I chose to say nothing. Okane loved that. I looked down to avoid his victorious grin and, to my horror, there was a spot of red on the white sheet where I’d been digging my fingernails into my palm. If my silence wasn’t enough of an admission of guilt, there was the red stain seeping through the sheet. I knew Okane could see it, but he chose not to comment on it. Even that was an expression of dominance, a sign that his facade was unbreakable.
“Well, I’d better let you rest. If you remember anything, or if you just want to talk, I’m never far away.” With that, Okane left the room, to be replaced in short order by Dr. Schnell. He was confused by the new cuts on my right hand, but I told him I’d been unaware of how tightly I was squeezing my fingers due to the painkillers, and he didn’t pursue the issue. I underwent surgery for my knee later that day, and spent that evening in another timeless sedated haze. The post-op report wasn’t as positive as I’d hoped, and Dr. Schnell said I would likely feel some chronic pain in my knee for the rest of my life. He outlined a physical therapy regimen for me, and I spent the day alone, staring at the ceiling and contemplating Luther’s disappearing act. By the end of the day, it had come to sound more attractive than any of my other options. I was so sick of playing the cog in Minerva’s corrupt machine that I knew I could never return to the academy.
I slept without sedative, and when I next awoke, the white room was a murky gray. As they’d done for the last few nights, the nurses had dimmed the light strips above in order to help me sleep.
I turned over in my bed and saw a massive figure sitting on a stool next to me. I didn’t have the strength to scream, but I managed a throaty gasp and jerked away.
“At ease, cadet,” the shadowy figure said. “At ease.” I wasn’t inclined to listen, but as I blinked away the crust of sleep, my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. The man sitting next to me was a walking tank, with broad shoulders and a skull that had clearly been shaped with a ruler. His skin was even darker than mine, and his shock of black hair was in the early stages of recession. His voice was authoritative, but he wore a nondescript Aegis undershirt over his bulging muscles, and there was no indication of rank anywhere on him.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked, projecting my voice and hoping that someone in the hallway outside might hear.
“My name is Sifo Kubek,” he said, and my fear instantly turned to confusion.
“You’re general of Zones 2 and 3, aren’t you?” I was aware of General Kubek’s existence as a matter of course, but I’d never seen him before and nobody in AOA spoke of him. He hadn’t even attended the former Lieutenant West’s graduation ceremony.
“Yes, and I’m very pleased to meet you, Cadet Gordon. Today, however, I’m not here as a general of Aegis,” Kubek said. “I’m here as a military advisor to the regents for the upcoming hearing.”
“I didn’t know there was going to be a hearing.”
“Then you must have a pretty low opinion of Minerva’s justice system,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not perfect, but nobody can bomb a state-of-the-art military outpost and execute an entire town of civilians without answering a few questions about it afterward. Not even Fionn Okane.”
I knew better than to let in a ray of hope, even one as small and tentative as this. “Oh good, so he can answer a few questions and you can fill in all your blanks in a neat little file. Then you’ve got the whole incident condensed, you’ve taken a massacre and turned it into ink and paper so you can drop it in a side filer and never think about it again. How’s that sound? Somewhere near the mark?”
Kubek laughed again, but it wasn’t a predatory, condescending laugh like Okane’s. It was sad, and knowing, and I felt just a bit safer with him, though no less furious. “Not if I can help it, cadet. That’s why I’m here. Every other living witness spent the entire incident locked in an underground shelter, but according to all reports, you were unaccounted for after escaping the Temple bar at 1640 until reappearing at the shelter at around 2000. I don’t know what you did during those three hours, but if you’re willing to co-operate, you can help us put together what really happened on May 18th.”
“I spoke to General Okane yesterday. I already told him what happened.”
“I believe that you spoke to him,” Kubek said. “But I don’t believe you told him what happened. To be honest, neither does he.”
“If he doesn’t believe me, then what makes you think I’ll tell you any differently?”
“Because Okane wanted to intimidate you. He wanted to shape your testimony. I only want the truth.”
“There is no truth,” I said. “Everyone claims to want the truth while piling lies on top of lies. If there ever was a thing like truth, we buried it ages ago. Now it’s just his story and my story, but only one of them will mean anything at a hearing.”
“I wish I could say you were wrong, but I’m not a fool and clearly neither are you. The odds of convicting Okane with anything other than excessive force are slim to none. He’s very, very well connected. He’s got friends in every branch, not to mention the regency.”
“So what are you doing wasting your time with me? This hearing is already over.”
Kubek sighed and folded his meaty hands over each other in his lap. “Both of my parents were peacekeepers for the United Nations, and I have an old-fashioned sense of justice that pays no attention to what you are or who you know.”
“Keeping the peace is another way to say you’re keeping the status quo, and if you want to know my version of the truth, it’s that the status quo is fucked.”
“That’s a healthy attitude to have when you’re young,” Kubek said. “Not realistic, but you have time to learn. You’re only twenty years old, aren’t you?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“Well, Cadet Gordon, if you want to share your opinion on the status quo, the hearing is in five days. I can’t tell you that it will change anything, but I can promise you won’t be punished for giving us your story, no matter what it says about General Okane.”
With that, General Kubek produced a small card, which he left on my nightstand before leaving the room. I never looked at it. I had no intention of taking part in a political circus, even if General Kubek’s support was genuine. I’d already made up my mind about Minerva, and I needed no more proof of the system’s absolute corruption to motivate my escape. I managed to wait a whole four days before I put my plan into action, when General Okane would be too focused on the hearing to pay any particular attention to me. My recovery was on track, and I had been stockpiling supplies for days, so I slipped out of the intensive care module at night, while no one was looking, made my way to the motor pool, and took an unoccupied jeep. I don’t know if that’s how Luther Mensah did it, but it worked out rather well for me.
Can you blame me? If you believe any of the story I’ve just related to you, can you blame me for quitting the whole rotten affair? Minerva is infected on every level with the disease of humanity, and the enormous power that it wields only magnifies the destructive potential of the disease. The greed of Oculus will drive Minerva to cover the planet, the tyranny of Aegis will dominate it, and the indifferent intellectuals of Glaucus will provide them with the tools to destroy it once and for all. This is our nightmare future, when the sins committed against the people of Terekat will expand to global proportions. You can choose to ignore me if you want. You can deny my story and happily allow the censors to delete it from your network. After all, I don’t have any evidence to support my accusations. General Okane saw to that when he razed his own fortress to the ground. However, if you’re willing to acknowledge that my version of events is the only one that makes sense – if you can read unclouded by party loyalties or determined ignorance – then there may be some hope for you yet.
Once, I’d filled my hollow spaces with hope for a better life in Minerva, but I have no room for hope anymore. I’ve chosen to fill myself, as did Lady Macbeth, from the crown to the toes topful of direst cruelty. Vengeance against General Okane is all I want now. I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything, even more than love or wholeness. Love is a ridiculous biological dead end, like the appendix or the gall bladder. The closer I come to experiencing it, the greater the pain when that love turns to loss. Wholeness, on the other hand, is simply impossible in a world made of rot. If it exists anywhere, it is a fleeting state, and not worth holding onto.
Vengeance is a goal. Vengeance is attainable, and if I am successful, it will be permanent. Very few things in this world are permanent, but I will make sure that what I do to you, General Okane, can never be undone. Before you die, I want you to know just a fraction of the suffering you inflicted on the people of Terekat, the nomad tribes that became the Domani Khel-Duna, and the man I could have loved. That would bring me something greater than wholeness. That would bring me satisfaction.
And thus ends this account. So much of the events are shrouded, both by literal firewalls and the passage of time, but I felt that I was able to understand what was true and what wasn’t. But then I found this communication.
This encrypted email was sent to a secret outside mail server the day after Thalia Gordon’s manuscript arrived at Minerva HQ.
From: Sifo Kubek ([email protected])
To: Nightshade ([email protected])
It’s too early to tell what long-term effects your manuscript might have on Minerva, but people are most certainly talking. The hearing went just as you predicted, but now two of the regents are ordering a forensic team out to investigate the ruins of Terekat. I don’t believe they’ll find anything, I just thought you might like to know that your truth has made an impact. Okane isn’t sweating, but the man was born without pores, so that’s not a surprise. We shall see if he grows some once we really go to work.
For now, you will have to lay low and be patient. The manuscript was a success, at least in that it solidified your cover and your escape has not been traced back to me. I wish you had left out our meeting altogether, but you did alter it sufficiently and no one, not even Okane, has approached me about your disappearance yet. They will, eventually, and because I will have to face some scrutiny, this will be our last communication for at least a month. I have another new agent en route to your safehouse and he’ll bring enough supplies to last until we can make our next move. I believe you two know each other.
As per your request, I ran a background check on Undersecretary Uriah Noskov. It seems the man you met at Terekat doesn’t exist, at least not in Minerva’s official records. I checked for matching descriptions and possible aliases, but nobody in the Oculus database comes close. Of course, that’s typical for an undercover agent. Once the search is called off and your file is officially closed, my people will remove every trace of you from the records and Thalia Gordon will cease to exist as well. You can’t refer to yourself by name from this point on, and I will refer to you solely as Agent Nightshade. I will delete this e-mail, and it would be wise if you did the same. I’ve taken steps to protect this mail server, but we can never be sure who is reading.
I’m not sure if this clarifies or muddies the water further. I know some things for certain, though. Okane did indeed destroy the city of Terekat. He did stand trial and was condemned for excessive force. With time, the political fallout of the event disgraced him, and Okane resigned his commission and left Minerva. Since then, Sifo Kubek rose in prominence from general to Commander of Aegis. And while Minerva certainly has a dark past, with closets full of skeletons, I feel confident that we ARE getting better. The dark future that the author of this manuscript prognosticated may still come to pass, but I know that there are at least some of us who are actively working against it.
I would like to meet this Ms. Gordon, someday. I feel like we might have common goals.