The Red Secretary

The ride out past Sorintov Station to the monument the soldiers held hostage was bumpy and hot. Every time the sun sank below the horizon during one of its ten daily sunsets, Arkadi welcomed the cooler air, and the quiet. The world always felt more real in the dark. Arkadi sat in the back of an open lorry, smoking a cheap imported cigar while the wind tugged at the crimson kerchief covering her mouth. She ruminated on the last negotiation she had made with desperate soldiers. It had ended the same as most of the others.

The lorry kicked up red dust that settled into the creases of her skin, the folds and scars that mapped her hands after a decade servicing oil rigs at the bottom of the world before she was called to this second occupation. The dust gave her rough-cut clothes a rusty patina, the same patina of the refugees and violence clean-up crews that scurried out of the lorry’s way as it grumbled up the through the striated foothills of Jenavah. The guts of the world were laid bare here, exposing their secrets in an honest way that no person could: spidery veins of yellow, pink, blue-grey and a peculiar shade of aquamarine that Arkadi had only seen once before, in a painting of the sea. She tipped open her blotting pad and sketched out the layers of the territory with a charcoal pencil, but only succeeded in smearing more red dust over everything, including the name of the monument on the other side of the hills: the Red Secretary. She closed the notebook, adjusted her kerchief, and turned to see how much farther she had to go.

From this distance all that was visible of the Red Secretary were three twining spires jutting into the crimson sky, so high that the tops were not visible. Arkadi’s research on the facility told her those spires were high enough to touch the outer atmosphere. They were pretty things, though the prettiness was a secondary characteristic. The spires had a far deadlier purpose. That was likely why the soldiers had taken the thing. Arkadi flipped through her notebook again to review her notes. By all counts no one had been in contact with the rogue squad yet, or received a list of demands, though all frequencies were being monitored.

Now that the war with the enemy was over, not every soldier embraced their contracted end. Some ran away and tried to blend in and forget their crimes of violence and pray to the gods that history would forget them. The government sent Justicars after those ones. But for the more dangerous ones, the soldiers trying to make a statement by blowing up someone or something in protest of the fate they signed up for when they enlisted, the government called in Arkadi to negotiate.

This was her sixty-first negotiation with rogue soldiers.

The lorry rolled to a halt. Arkadi popped up over the driver’s cab to see what had stopped them. A massive fissure cut through the road ahead; the searing length of the tear rose halfway up the other side of the rise, opening a weeping wound in the multi-colored rock like a knife through a layer cake.

Arkadi jumped out. Her boots sent up a puff of dust. She walked with the driver over to the fissure. A gaggle of military engineers waved at them from the other side. The engineers had deployed a temporary bridge, but it wasn’t big enough for the lorry.

“Far as I go,” the driver said. She was wearing gloves, but she didn’t offer a hand. There were still enemy-seeded contagions going around, so touching wasn’t encouraged.

“I don’t blame you,” Arkadi said.

“Keep your hands clean, you hear?” the driver said. “I don’t want to haul your body out with theirs. I’m coming back for you, and them.”

“Clean as a summer storm,” Arkadi said. She stepped onto the inflatable bridge and stared straight ahead, though her stomach lurched. Neither the driver nor the soldiers needed to see her hesitate, not this close to the site.

The soldier on the other side of the bridge held out a gloved hand to help her, but she did not take it. Soldiers tended to be the most contaminated.

“I’m the situation leader,” the soldier said. “Revlan Te Mossard.”

Arkadi reassessed her. The soldier was a slim, short woman with a shaved head. She wore no mark of rank; the enemy had neatly identified and eliminated the highest ranking officers early on in the age-old conflict that blighted the world every three hundred years. Officers and ground troops groomed and dressed identically now. Ranks were tattooed onto forearms, which could be easily covered.

“Arkadi Te Avalin,” Arkadi said. “You have a vehicle to take us up to the Red Secretary?”

“We have a temporary base set up over the next rise. That’s as close as we can get.”

“They take out the road?”

“No, they fired on us. Missed and hit the road.”

“Casualties?”

“One of my squads and three negotiators. So I hope you’re better than your predecessors.”

“I was supposed to be their backup. Things should have been a lot further along by now.”

“Now you’re point,” Revlan said.

When a negotiator was called in, it was protocol to have a secondary and tertiary backup to provide relief and help hash out strategies. Arkadi had never been alone on point before. The next closest negotiator was out at an open market negotiating a crisis with another AWOL squad. There would be no help arriving anytime soon. She considered telling Revlan that, but thought better of it. The more confident she played this, the more confident Revlan would be in her, the more confident Revlan’s troops, the more help she would get. Round and round, the same old game of bluff and hustle.

Revlan led her up over the rise to a shallow valley where a temporary base had been set up to observe the activity half a mile distant at the Red Secretary. They had put up bubble barriers to protect them from assault, and Arkadi noted two contagion sensors blinking in the distance between the camp and the Red Secretary. There were great gouts torn up in the grainy terrain all around them; the soldiers had clearly been trying to blow them up from the Red Secretary, with little success. Dogs barked from a temporary kennel near the medical tent. A big beefy woman fed the dogs tentacle fish heads from a slop bucket. When the woman caught Arkadi looking, she narrowed her eyes at her.

“What are the dogs for?” Arkadi asked Revlan.

“We used them to sniff for explosives,” Revlan said, “just in case they had mined the area. Came back clean, though.”

Inside the command tent were three more soldiers; shaved heads, crisp uniforms, sleeves rolled down over whatever ranks were tattooed on their forearms. The oldest addressed her first. “I’m Maradiv,” he said, “the intelligence officer here.”

“Not so intelligent,” Arkadi said, “if three negotiators are already dead.”

He didn’t blink at that, which told Arkadi precisely what he thought of negotiators. “Is there a communications officer?” Arkadi asked.

“Had to be evac’d. Dysentery,” Revlan said.

“Tactical team?”

“Just below the hill. They can be in place in about three minutes. Two if you can give us a distraction up there that lets us get a closer position.”

“Perimeter?”

“Perimeter’s secure,” Revlan said. She tapped out positions on the map, which puffed up into a misty, three-dimensional version of the terrain. A chill rode Arkadi’s spine at that bit of enemy magic. She didn’t like how much of the enemy’s little trinkets they had gotten comfortable using during the war. It would all have to be destroyed soon, no matter how pretty or useful. “We have snipers at these locations, but the facility has no windows. We can only take them out if they come out.”

“They don’t have hostages, do they?” Arkadi asked.

“No hostages,” Revlan said, “as far as we know, but you should verify that. We want the facility intact or we lose access to the weapon, the Red Secretary itself. Worse, explosives will make the site unstable and likely blow it and us all to the seven hells. There’s a huge methane deposit under the facility. It’s what powers the whole thing.”

“No ways in or out offsite but the front door?”

“There’s an emergency tunnel that comes out three kilometers to the east. We caved it in. They’re sealed in place.”

“How are we dealing with surrounding civilians and media?”

“It’s handled,” Revlan said. “It’s a remote area, and as you saw, they already took out the main road in, which we have covered. There was no homesteading permitted inside the facility fence. But I have drones up doing recon, just in case.”

“I saw a media drone on the way in, shot down.” The drones were all enemy magic, too: whirring, blue gobs of light that flashed in and out of the spaces between things, but they could be disabled. Figuring out how to disable them had been a great boon during the early years of the war.

“Like I said, it’s handled.”

“No communication with the base yet?”

“That’s why you’re here,” she said. “We keep trying all the frequencies, but it’s dead quiet up there.”

“You sure they’re up there?”

“Those guns didn’t shoot themselves.”

“I’m concerned they’ve had almost sixty hours to stew with no contact from us,” Arkadi said.

“Not for lack of trying.”

Arkadi flipped open her notebook again. Her notes were written in shorthand, and her handwriting was so poor it may as well have been in code. “You’re certain it’s this squad, though, Fourteen Yellow Hibiscus?”

Maradiv cleared his throat, clearly eager to sound useful. “All of our intelligence has that squad going AWOL four days ago just outside Sorintov Station,” he said.

“No killing at Sorintov, though,” Arkadi said.

“None,” Maradiv said.

“How friendly are your dogs?” Arkadi said.

Revlan raised her brows. “The ones outside?”

“You have other dogs around?”

Maradiv said, “What do you want to do with them?”

“I want to bring one with me.”

“What, back across the road?” Revlan said.

“No, to the Red Secretary.”

“Combat dogs are very expensive,” Maradiv said.

“So are crisis negotiators. I need your most submissive, well-behaved dog.”

Revlan sighed. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “That’s easier said than done.”

“I’ve said it.”

Revlan said, “Go talk to her, Maradiv.”

“Couldn’t you—”

“Go.”

Maradiv went, and Revlan went after him. The other soldiers in the tent tried to make small talk with Arkadi about the drive up, and she obliged. She could chatter about nothing with the best of them. Arkadi waited a full rotation of the sun before she finally went out to see what the issue was. Revlan was coming up just as she went out.

“One dog,” Revlan said. “I told the dog trainer we’d go in and save the dog first if you both get shot.”

“Fine,” Arkadi said. She followed Revlan out to the kennels and the beefy woman Arkadi assumed was the trainer. The dog standing next to the trainer was a big six-legged senior with a heavy gray muzzle and silver mantle.

“Remember my hands aren’t clean,” the trainer said. “I have no moral reason not to shoot you if this dog doesn’t come back.”

“Thank you,” Arkadi said. She pulled off her baggy coat and vest and tossed them next to Revlan.

“You have body armor on?” Revlan asked.

“Under the shirt, sure,” Arkadi said, “but best to look as lean and unarmed as possible when I approach.”

“You really are just going to walk out there like the others?” Revlan said. “Are you stupid?”

“Not like the others,” Arkadi said. “I have the dog. Soldiers don’t shoot dogs.”

“Yeah, but you aren’t a dog,” the trainer said.

Arkadi snapped her fingers at the dog. “Follow,” she said.

The dog loped alongside her. She envied his ignorance. She felt the gazes of the soldiers behind her, so she stepped a little bolder, a little faster, until she cleared the top of the rise. She held out her arms, palms facing the Red Secretary.

From the rise she had a clear view of the monument. And, presumably, the soldiers inside had a clear view of her, too. She advanced, calling for the dog to heel. It was big enough that they certainly weren’t going to miss it. As she walked she saw the blasted holes in the dirt from the previous barrage. Great beaked birds took flight from the tangled bits of human carnage left behind. Arkadi made out a torso, a mangled hand, but looked away before she saw the faces. The nightmares were worse when she saw faces. She couldn’t imagine what the soldiers dreamed about, if they still dreamed at all.

The great hulking doors of the Red Secretary grew larger and larger as she approached. She had not realized how massive they were, as if constructed for some great beast or abhorrent giant. She spotted the milky eyes of the surveillance net ringing the compound just above the main door. She addressed those eyes.

“I’m Arkadi Te Avalin,” Arkadi said, already a little impressed to have gotten so far, “the crisis negotiator for Sorintov province. I’m just here to make sure everyone is all right and see if you need anything.”

Her shadowy reflection gazed back at her from the false outer eyes of the compound. The sun was heading back down again, the sixth time it had done it that day. “I’m going to put my arms down now,” she said, because they were trembling hard. Her reflection in those unblinking eyes showed a fearful bird of a woman and her baffling dog companion, but that ridiculous tableau had kept her alive for longer than the others. She relaxed her arms, but kept her palms open.

“Does anyone in there need medical attention?” she asked. “If you’re hurt, I can help.”

She listened to the sound of the wind, and the light huff of her own breathing. The dog sat next to her, its big purple tongue lolling, head cocked. Dust covered her boots and stained her undershirt. She tasted coppery chalk.

The door shimmered. Her stomach twisted; maybe the body armor would hold this close, maybe it wouldn’t. The door went transparent, but all she could see on the other side was darkness.

Then, a voice, “What’s the dog’s name?”

Her first rule in a crisis negotiation was: never lie. Spinning the truth was fine, but one lie, if caught out, could ruin all the trust she had built with a hostage taker. The dog having a name would make it—and, by extension, her—more human and sympathetic to this hostage taker, but she had not thought to ask its name. But she could not lie.

“I’ve been calling him dog,” Arkadi said. “But I know he has some other, fancier name.”

“He’s not yours, then?”

“Could I see your face?” Arkadi said. “I’m happy to answer, but I like to see who I’m talking to.” She pressed her palms toward the door again, fingers splayed. “I’m not armed—”

“I heard you the first time.” Something shifted in the darkness. Arkadi thought she saw the outline of a boot, just a blacker shadow. Was the soldier on point wearing a camouflaged power suit, one of the ones engineered with enemy magic? She had been told those were all taken out of commission at the end of the war.

“I’m here to help,” Arkadi said. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” he said. The shadow flickered again, and she finally saw a dim form squatting just to the left of the door. The suit was definitely imbued with enemy magic. Interlocked scales reflected the darkness, glimmering only faintly in the light from the open door. Arkadi saw the oily sheen of a contagion blast screen over the doorway. Even with the door open, nothing could get in with that shield still up, except maybe an interrupter weapon, but that would certainly risk a methane explosion. She needed to get him to take down the shield.

“Did you have a dog?” Arkadi asked. “Before the war.” She already knew the answer, because if he hadn’t she wouldn’t be alive right now, but she needed him to engage with her.

“My town got blown up,” he said. “Early on.”

“I’m sorry,” Arkadi said. “My mother died early on, too.”

“I don’t care about your mother.”

“I care about yours,” Arkadi said, and that was true. “Tell me about her. How many mothers did you have?”

The door went opaque again, cutting off her view inside. She gazed up at the milky eyes. “All right,” she said, “I won’t talk about your mothers. I’m a negotiator, not a psychologist. I’m only here to help. What can I do for you? You need food? Medical—”

A high-pitched whine electrified the air. Arkadi crouched low and put her hands on her head. The dog barked and tackled her with its front paws, shielding her from harm as it had no doubt been trained to do for its handler.

Dust clogged Arkadi’s nose. She huffed dirt.

The wailing ceased.

Arkadi tried to heave herself up, but the dog would not relent. She managed to get out a breathy command, “Off!”

He obliged.

“Listen,” Arkadi said, still lying on her belly in the dirt. “Nobody else needs to get hurt. Please don’t do that again. All I would give you is a slap for breaking and entering, if this was up to me. Negotiators understand the risks, you know. It doesn’t have to be any bigger than that. I want to see you all get what you want and walk out of here. But I need to know what you want first.”

The doorway flickered, went transparent. The soldier had moved closer. The suit made the soldier look alien, genderless, which was part of its purpose. The enemy had feared them all far more in these bulky, shimmering suits than in anything else. They feared the suits more than heavy weaponry. Heavy weaponry wasn’t human.

“Don’t lie to me,” the soldier said. Arkadi was uncertain of the soldier’s gender, but about sixty percent of their fighting forces were men, so it was a skinny young man she pictured behind the suit.

“I will never lie to you,” Arkadi said. “You can call up anyone you like and check up on me. Ask about Arkadi Te Avalin.”

“I heard your name the first time.”

“What’s yours?”

Silence.

“Are you the right person for me to talk to,” Ardkadi said. “I’d like to help however I can.”

“I’m the right person,” he said.

Trying to read someone when you couldn’t see their face, their eyes, the tiny microexpressions that gave away their intent, was always frustrating. Even their voices were garbled by the suit’s air filters.

“Just hoping to help,” Arkadi said. “I want to make sure I get your story. There are people down there who don’t care how this ends, but I do. I can talk to them.”

“All the weapons need to be destroyed.”

“Like the Red Secretary? It will be decommissioned again. Go back to generating power, that’s all. There are other people who are going to take care of that. You don’t need to.”

“And in three hundred years, when the enemy rises again?” the soldier said. “It will be turned back on. We’ll start this all again.”

“That’s the way the conflict goes, yes. But destroy it and you’ll destroy this whole province. There’s methane under here, did you know that? Not only would you deprive the continent of power, but you’ll kill everyone in this province.”

“What does that matter? My end is the same no matter how many die.”

“Is that why you and your friends are out here?” Arkadi asked. “You think there’s no reason to go on? Don’t you want a consecrated death? Doing this… There’s no honor in the afterlife if you do this.”

“There’s no honor in any life for what we’ve done,” the soldier said. “They told us our whole lives that violence was an abomination. And then they trained us to be abominations. Where is their reckoning, the reckoning for the state?”

“They will perish too, in time,” Arkadi said. “Everyone who did violence during this cycle will walk freely into the incinerators.”

“Or get pushed in by Justicars.”

“Would you rather walk or be pushed?” Arkadi said.

A grunt. Something like a laugh, difficult to discern through the respirator. “It’s dumb sending in negotiators to talk to soldiers,” he said. “You’ve done no violence. Your hands are clean. You’ll be here, after, rebuilding this world we saved, so you can destroy it all again in another three hundred years.”

“Is that why you killed the other negotiators who came up here?” Arkadi asked. “You feel we’re complicit?”

“The whole country is complicit,” he said.

Arkadi understood the true gravity of the situation, then. “I have to go now,” she said. “Dog’s hungry. I’m hungry. Are you hungry? I can bring you something in a few hours, if you want me to come back? It’s up to you.” Dusk was settling over everything. She didn’t want to make that walk back among the gouges in the ground and mangled bodies in the dark. And she certainly didn’t want to stay out here until the next sunrise in an hour.

“Leave the dog.”

“If I leave the dog I’ll need something in return.”

“Then go. You’ll get nothing from me.”

“Before I do,” Arkadi said, “I want you to know that even though you’re holding this building, and some people got shot early on, I know lots of unexpected things happen in these kinds of situations. It’s confusing. There’s a lot of panic. It happens. But you let me get up here. You’ve kept cool and calm since then. That counts for a lot. Let’s work together to get you all out safely now, all right?”

No response. Arkadi dusted her trousers off and rose slowly. She gave the dog a pat. She raised a hand to the soldier, as if they were old friends. “If you want, we can talk again. If not, they’ll send someone else up here, probably. But if you request me,” and she dropped her voice, “if you request me, me and the dog can come back. And I can bring you something. Anything you like?” Arkadi stared again at the faceless suit. Nothing.

Arkadi turned, patting the dog again as she did, to remind him that even if he didn’t care about her, shooting her might upset the dog. It was tough to turn her back on him, but it showed trust. She felt his stare, anticipating the bullet.

“Butterscotch candy.”

“Butterscotch candy,” Arkadi said, and she knew which of the soldiers this likely was, then, because one didn’t develop a taste for butterscotch anywhere but the southern continent. “You be here in an hour to talk again, and I’ll work on getting that. All right? And you can feel free to contact us any time, you know. We’re monitoring the frequencies. You can talk to me whenever you want. But I’ll do my best to get that for you.”

The soldier nodded. It was enough.

Arkadi tensed as she walked away, and forced herself to loosen up. Confident, carefree. People asked her often how she did it, putting herself in front of people who wanted to kill her and dozens more besides, but it was just like theater. She played the part of somebody confident, somebody smarter and greater than herself, and she became that person.

When she crossed back into the confines of the camp, the first person to run up was the dog’s trainer.

“Mavis, come!” the woman barked, and the dog lopped over.

“Mavis was a hit,” Arkadi said, but the trainer just frowned at her and strode back to the kennels with her charge.

Revlan met her at the command tent. “Anything?”

“I’m alive,” Arkadi said. “The dog’s alive. Nothing’s blown up yet. He wants butterscotch candy. But I figure you were listening in.”

“How many in there?”

“Don’t know,” Arkadi said. “Only saw the one. But based on our conversation and how things went down, I suspect it’s the only one.”

“What did he say?”

“Just get him some candy.”

“You were out there an hour and that’s all you have? Candy?”

“Better than you’ve done,” Arkadi said. She jabbed a finger at Maradiv, who was lingering just inside the command tent. She recognized his nervous hands. “Get me some candy.”

“That will take days,” he said, moving away from the tent. “Maybe longer. Does anyone on this continent even make it anymore?”

“You’ll find out.”

Revlan ushered Arkadi back into the command tent and said, “Perhaps I haven’t communicated the gravity of this situation.”

“It’s been communicated,” Arkadi said. She pointed to the squiggling lines surrounding the Red Secretary. “I think you took out the rest of the soldier’s squad when you blew the escape tunnel, if they were ever there in the first place.”

“How can you possibly know that? I was monitoring your communication. He said nothing to indicate—”

“She’s alone,” Arkadi said, pulling out her notebook. “I know which soldier this is, and she’s very green. She opaqued the door before she turned on the canons. She did that so she didn’t have to look right in my face as she did it. If there was someone else operating those defensive weapons, they wouldn’t need to put that kind of distance between me and them. She had no demands. She said there were no hostages. She’s alone.”

“You have a plan, then?”

“There’s shielding on the door, but I can get her to turn it off, maybe for a few seconds only,” she said, “but I need that dog again, Mavis. And I need at least two excellent snipers in place.”

“We already have snipers—”

“Excellent ones,” Arkadi said. “They should only fire if they have a clear kill shot when she opens the door. If they don’t have a clear kill shot and she lives, we’re all dead, along with the rest of the province, because she’s going to slam that shield back up and go blow up the whole site. So they better be good.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“About what?

“If you’re wrong that she’s alone?”

“Then we’ll certainly all die, whether your people are good shots or not.”

“I’ll have a squad ready to back you up once the door is open and shots are fired,” Revlan said.

“That’s nice, but probably not necessary.”

“I’ll get them as close as I can,” Revlan said, “but you’ll have maybe two minutes on your own between the kill shot and their arrival. Stay down and stay out of the way. They’ll go in and clear it. Remember to keep your hands clean. We’re short three negotiators now, and we don’t need you consigned to the fire with the rest of us if you do violence.”

“We’ll all go to the fire eventually,” Arkadi said. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I know my limits.”

“Good,” Revlan said. “When are you going back? It could be a long time before we have the candy.”

“I need her to sit until sun up in an hour,” she said. “She says she has no hostages, but she doesn’t need them. The Red Secretary is her hostage, and she knows it. You still have people on the frequencies?

“I do.”

“Have them reach out to her across all six channels every ten minutes or so. If she starts feeling lonely I want her to hear a friendly voice. Have them call me up if she calls in.”

“What are you going to do for an hour?”

“Take a shit. Then take a nap.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I almost got shot out there,” Arkadi said. “It’s a wonder I didn’t shit my pants.”

Revlan escorted her to the lavatory pits and the temporary showers, and she took advantage of both. Arkadi waited until Revlan was gone before she gave in to the shakes. They were bad this time, so bad her teeth chattered. The first time it had happened was a year into the ceasefire, when she had talked a soldier down from killing a couple of government people in Yorusiv. The soldier had killed one of the hostages outright, just as Arkadi had arrived. She really had shit her pants that time, just as the soldier was coming out. He had raised a weapon to the head of the last hostage he was taking out with him, and there Arkadi was, five feet from him with no way to stop him from killing the hostage, killing her, and then killing himself. Negotiators could talk, but they weren’t allowed to maim or kill unless they wanted to end the war in the incinerators with the rest of those who had had to deal out violence during the war. At best, she might have been able to disarm him. But there wasn’t time to think. She had done everything right, talked him down, told him how it would go, but people were unpredictable. Rogue soldiers especially.

Arkadi found a cot in the med tent and threw her arm over her eyes and let her mind gnaw away at the problem of the Red Secretary. She needed the shield to come down, and that meant giving up the dog. She pulled out her notebook again and doodled in the pages next to her notes on the squad. One of the soldiers she had researched was a rookie kid named Soraya Te Kovad. Had grown up on a farm: pack of spotted gizzles, pack of ostriches, pack of dogs. Family farm blown up early in the war. They had lived in a suburb of Kovaaya. In Kovaaya, most people worked at the candy factory. Butterscotch, of course.

It was easy to know a kid on paper. Arkadi had gotten to know each of them in doing her research, but it was always jarring to meet them in person. She imagined them all very differently in her head. Seeing the kid walk out of her head and into the world was like watching a dream come to life.

And now Arkadi would have to be complicit in the death of that dream.

She must have slept, because Revlan woke her.

“They’re on frequency four,” Revlan said.

Arkadi followed her to the command tent. Maradiv and another soldier were there, huddled near the radio, which was spitting red sparks and blue auroras from the tinny cups affixed to its exterior. Arkadi wondered if the enemy magics like this would eventually just die out on their own, sputtering into the ether like these things.

“She’s here,” Maradiv said.

“What’s happening over there?” Arkadi said into the radio.

“Need you to come back up with the candy,” the soldier said. Her voice sounded tinny, far away. Definitely a bad radio. It needed to be recharged.

“Still working on getting you that candy,” Arkadi said. “We’ve only had a couple of rotations of the sun since—”

“Bring the dog up here,” the soldier said.

“I told you,” Arkadi said. “I need something in return.”

“I’ll talk to you, then,” she said. “Up here.”

“I need a show of good faith,” Arkadi said. “I’m here with all these good soldiers down here. Now, I know you were overwhelmed when those first couple negotiators showed up. Split-second decision, right? You felt you were in danger. But you haven’t hurt anyone else since then, and that counts for a lot. You talking to me and the dog—the dog’s name is Mavis, by the way—that counts for a lot. If we can end this now, that’s going to count big.”

“I’m not coming out.”

“Just a good show for these people,” Arkadi said. “I know you’re hungry. I expect you grew up pretty hungry there outside Kovaaya. You have sisters, brothers, who worked in the factory? Or could you spare any after all that work on the farm?”

Silence. Spitting sparks.

Arkadi waited, though Maradiv and Revlan looked increasingly concerned. Arkadi had pushed her hand when she was well away from the defensive guns. Not that it mattered if the kid blew the station. But Arkadi didn’t think she was at that point yet. A lot relied on gut feeling, as a negotiator. Too much.

Then, from the radio, “I’m sorry.” It was difficult to judge the tone. Did her voice break? Had Arkadi struck a nerve?

“I’ll bring Mavis up there,” Arkadi said gently. “You and me and Mavis will work this out, all right? We are in a good place. You’ve handled yourself really well, Soraya. I’m coming up.”

Arkadi strode out of the tent, heading straight for the kennels. The trainer saw her coming and put her meaty hands on her hips.

“Alive,” the trainer said.

“My goal is to bring everyone in alive,” Arkadi said. “Including the dog. But if I don’t get the dog, we all die, all blown up to bits. Understand?”

“I nursed this dog from my own tit.”

“I’m sure that’s a euphemism. I understand.”

The trainer grunted at her and called Mavis over. The big dog rambled to Arkadi’s side. This time, the trainer knelt next to the dog and said something to him that Arkadi did not hear.

“I have to go,” Arkadi said. “There’s an unstable soldier up there.”

“Go,” the trainer said.

Arkadi called Mavis after her, and they began the long trek across the rutted ground between the camp and the Red Secretary a second time. The sun was high in the sky, and the wind had died down. She never thought she’d miss the wind, but as she sweated it out under the heat, miss it she did.

When she arrived at the doors this time, palms out, the door went transparent immediately.

The soldier stood dead center in the doorway this time, stance wide, just a few paces from the entrance. She shifted her weight from side to side, the only indication of mood that Arkadi was going to get.

“This is Mavis,” Arkadi said. “Mavis, this is Soraya.”

“How did you know my name?” Soraya asked.

“I know your squad, remember?” Arkadi said. “I want this over as much as you. I want you to go home. Come on out, and I’ll ask if you can ride out with Mavis. Mavis hasn’t hurt anybody, and you’ve cooperated well since I came up here. That counts, remember? I’m going to put in a good word. Sometimes it helps.”

“I want to burn everything down,” Soraya said.

“I know,” Arkadi said. “Some days I do too.”

“How will you go on living with that?” Soraya said, “Once all the rest of us are dead?”

“I don’t know,” Arkadi said. “I’m still not sure how long any of us are going to survive the peace. Funny, isn’t it? You go all this time fighting the war, thinking it will get you, but it’s the peace that’s killing us, isn’t it? I don’t want peace to kill you, Soraya, not after the war tried so hard to, and failed.”

“How does this go?” Soraya said.

Arkadi spoke slowly, softly, “You turn off your suit and kick it to your left. I’ll walk ten paces back here with Mavis to give you some room. You put your left hand on your head and use your right to turn off that blast shield over the door. Be sure you’re not carrying anything in either hand. Just go slow, slow, slow. All right? When the door’s open, you drop to your knees. Keep your hands out. You’re going to see some soldiers coming up the hill to meet us, but that’s all normal. They’ll have weapons drawn, but that’s just protocol. None of them wants to hurt you. These are kids, you understand? Some haven’t done violence to anyone. We can still save some of them. But you’ve got to help. They may handle you a little roughly when they secure you, but I promise, no one wants to do violence to you. Once you are secure they will take you back down the hill with me and Mavis and we’ll have some of that butterscotch candy if it’s in yet, all right? I want to make sure this goes just right, so go ahead and repeat that all back to me.”

She did.

Arkadi nodded. “Great, all right, go ahead.” She started to back away, ensuring that the snipers would have a clear shot once the shield went down.

Soraya powered down her armor and released it. The whole glittery mess of it retracted down into itself, pooling around her feet. Underneath, Soraya was a skinny wisp of a girl in a soiled tunic, all lanky arms and legs and bony knees. It was clear she hadn’t eaten well in a long time, far longer than she and her squad had been on the run. Feeding the soldiers during the war had been difficult enough. Trying to feed them without the help of the enemy food trains they had ransacked all during the war was even harder. There were blackened circles under her eyes, bruising her already dark skin. Her hair had grown in a little, but didn’t yet cover all the scars on her skull.

Arkadi had known the girl wasn’t more than seventeen or eighteen from her research, but it was clearer, now. She wasn’t a monster or an alien, outside of the suit. She was just another terrified, exhausted human being: a terrified, exhausted human being turning around to switch off the shield over the door, the only thing keeping her alive.

The shield went down.

The girl began to turn again.

Arkadi should have been stepping back. Stepping away.

Instead, she said, “Cover!” and she stepped between Soraya and the light and rushed toward her, arms outstretched.

Mavis the dog reached Soraya before she did, throwing open his paws and enveloping her as he had been trained to do to protect those under fire.

Arkadi did not see the shots, but she felt them as she tumbled into Soraya. A fiery hammer whumped into Arkadi’s left shoulder. The dog yelped.

But Arkadi did hear the crack of Sorya’s head on the floor.

Arkadi rolled off of Soraya. Mavis still clung to Soraya with his front paws, though there was blood on his rear legs. Soraya’s hand was out, reaching for something. Just a few inches form her grasping fingers was a weapon, neatly hidden under the discarded suit.

“Don’t!” Arkadi said.

Soraya raised her head. Her eyes were unfocused. “You lied,” she said. Blood bubbled from her nostrils.

“I said nobody wanted to hurt you,” Arkadi said. “That was true. Nobody wanted this.”

“It’s not for you,” Soraya said, and pointed.

Arkadi followed her arm and saw another soldier on the platform overhead. The soldier tried to bolt, but stumbled.

He was going to run off and blow up the whole Red Secretary. The team wasn’t going to be fast enough to stop him.

Arkadi crawled over Soraya and grabbed the weapon with her good hand. She fired at the platform, a wild smear of lights. The soldier rolled up just as she fired again, and then her fire hit him. He tumbled over the railing and crashed to the floor ten paces away.

Arkadi dropped the weapon. Blood ran down her arm. She turned, terrified, staring at her bloody hands.

She raised her head… and saw the dog trainer already inside the building, crouching over Mavis the dog.

It should not have surprised Arkadi that the trainer would be first on the scene. Her gaze locked with Arkadi’s, but Arkadi could read nothing in the woman’s expression. Then the trainer was moving again, back down the rise as Revlan’s promised clean-up squad rolled into the room like a tide, precisely two minutes after the shield had gone down.

Arkadi sank to her knees. She clutched at her shoulder as blood pumped over her fingers. A medic near the back of the mass of soldiers rolled her onto a stretcher. Arkadi watched the fallen weapon kicked about the floor, sliding in the dust made muddy with blood.

Another soldier loomed over her from where she lay on the stretcher. Black spots flashed across her vision. She thought the soldier might be Maradiv, then laughed at that idea because the man was the least likely to bother to come up with a retrieval team. The medic jabbed something into her thigh. The pain eased off at the edges, but it still felt like her organs were bleeding out of her shoulder.

“Were there any more?” the soldier said. “More than these?”

“Just us,” Arkadi said. “Just us three.”

“Two,” the medic said. “There are two soldiers here on the floor. Were there three?”

“The dog,” Arkadi said. “Will the dog be all right?”

Then the darkness came, and it was blissful, the little death.

Arkadi woke alone in a tent. It took her some time to convince the intern on duty to tell her where she was.

“You’re still at the Red Secretary,” the intern said. “I’m getting the medic.”

The medic came in with Revlan tagging along behind her.

“Did you save—” Arkadi began.

“Both dead,” Revlan said. “The girl we shot. She was out from a head injury. The second was dead when we came in. What happened in there? Did they murder each other?”

“The dog,” Arkadi said. “Did you save the dog?”

“The dog’s fine,” Revlan said. “Tovorov is happy for that.”

“She the trainer?”

“Yes. What were you thinking, throwing yourself in front of the snipers?” Revlan said.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Arkadi said, which was true. It would take her some time to understand that.

“I told them you must have realized there were two in there,” Revlan said. “Is that right?”

Arkadi blinked at her. Did Revlan know what had happened? Was she trying to cover for Arkadi, or just guessing? No, Revlan had no reason to cover for Arkadi’s violence. Revlan simply needed to fill out the paperwork. If Revlan knew, if any of them knew that she had picked up a weapon…

“Ask the trainer,” Arkadi said, “she was there.” Arkadi put her arm over her face.

“We already asked Tovorov,” Revlan said. “I wanted to corroborate her story with you.”

“Then you know what happened,” Arkadi said. “Put it in the report and get it over with.” What did they do to crisis negotiators who committed violence? What order would she go into the incinerators? Before or after the soldiers? After, certainly.

“You did well,” Revlan said, “better than any negotiator I’ve seen. None of them would have taken that bullet. Tovorov says the soldiers shot each other. I admit I’m… trying to work that out. Which is why I wanted your help with it.”

Arkadi pulled her arm from her face. Her stomach twisted, but she said nothing to correct her.

Revlan continued, “And I said to Tovorov, are you quite certain? Because you’re good, Te Avalin, but I didn’t think you were good enough to get that soldier to shoot one of her own to save the Red Secretary. Especially considering she had a very serious concussion.”

“I didn’t either,” Arkadi said.

Revlan patted her pillow. “You rest,” she said. “Get her some water, will you?” she said to the medic, and the medic took the hint and left them. Revlan leaned over Arkadi and murmured, “Do not think I accept that your hands are clean, negotiator. None of us are. You are as human as me.”

Revlan rose.

Arkadi gave her a little two-fingered salute.

“I expect you’ll get a medal,” Revlan said.

“You will too,” Arkadi said.

“I will,” Revlan said, “and I’ll be wearing it along with the others when I walk into the incinerator next year. It will be very beautiful, I’m sure.”

The lorry came for Arkadi the next day. The medic had stuffed her full of drugs and coagulant, and she was able to limp her way out of the tent. All around her, the soldiers were packing up the command center, carrying supplies back down to the inflatable bridge. Groups of red-liveried scientists were marching up the other way, back to the Red Secretary, presumably to recalibrate it. The Red Secretary would be a weapon no longer. Not for another three hundred years, at least. Arkadi was thankful she would be dead, and all these people either dead with her or incinerated, by then.

But what about those other people? Those future generations, the ones born of those who had committed no violence during this horrible war? Only the peaceful could create a peaceful society, all the holy books said, and this is where it left them in the aftermath of war. She had given them nothing, preserved nothing but a cyclical war as regular as the seasons. Maybe someday they would murder every last one of the enemy. Or maybe someday the enemy would destroy them. One could hope.

As Arkadi reached the fissure in the road, she saw Tovorov there counting out the dog crates and overseeing their transit across the bridge.

Arkadi could not help herself. She limped over to Tovorov and stood a pace distant until Tovorov relented and said, “What do you want?”

“Why didn’t you tell them?” Arkadi asked.

“To what end?” Tovorov said. “So you could get incinerated after this, too? No. Someone has to rebuild. Someone has to go on. What you did was not wrong.”

“That’s not your decision.”

“Who else’s decision would it be? People make the laws.”

“The gods make the laws. People follow them.”

“That’s a pretty story in the day time,” Tovorov said, “but it doesn’t hold up here on the field, when you see night eight times a day.”

“You should have told the truth.”

You tell the truth,” Tovorov said. “I’m damned already. I just want a nice quiet year or two with my dogs before the end. That’s all. One more dead out there… No point.”

“How is Mavis?”

“Alive,” Tovorov said. “No thanks to you. But he’ll need to be retired.”

“We should all be retired.”

“Not you,” Tovorov said, pointing across the fissure at the lorry. “You have work. My work is done. Soldier work is done.”

The driver waved, and Arkadi recognized her. It was the same driver who had taken her up here. She had kept her promise to return.

“When they said the war was over, I was glad,” Arkadi said. “I thought it would get easier after that. But it’s harder now. It’s harder to fight your own people. Harder to see what’s right.”

“Get yourself a dog,” Tovorov said. “They’ll keep you straight.” When she saw Arkadi staring at the dog crates, she said, “Not one of mine.”

“Sorry,” Arkadi said. She waved to the lorry driver again, who motioned her over. Arkadi stepped up onto the bouncy bridge, and this time she looked down into the fissure, down and down, past the colorful layers of minerals to the darkness that never seemed to end. It was like looking inside of herself, inside of Soraya. A blackness that would never be filled.

“Come in,” the driver said from the other side of the bridge, “Come in,” but Arkadi remained transfixed on the bridge, halfway between the driver’s open arms and the darkness, halfway between war and peace.

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley is the author of the space opera The Stars are Legion, as well as the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. She has also written the award-winning God’s War Trilogy and The Worldbreaker Saga. Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and many anthologies. Hurley has also written for The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, Bitch Magazine, Boingboing, and Locus Magazine. She posts regular articles at KameronHurley.com.

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