■ My submissions
■ Partner’s submissions
The pewter-colored dropcraft, lodged in reddish mud, shifted a bit before its door slid open like an eyelid. From the round ship emerged six soldiers, wearing thin black jumpsuits with matching boots and gloves, right arms extended forward from their chest towards any potential threats. They quickly dispersed in different directions, covering vasts amounts of ground in seconds. Rain fell down as thick aqueous bulbs upon the saturated Martian soil, complementing a purplish-gray sky with a thin strip of orange towards the horizon, beyond the sharp ridges of geologic formations.
Charles Brock, by contrast, emerged from the craft slowly, swiveling his head to-and-fro to note his surroundings. He wore the same jet-black uniform as the soldiers that preceded him, with one difference: the red emblem of an eagle representing the Bloodhawks could be seen on either shoulder, announcing his rank as Lieutenant Commander.
The Bloodhawks were the military branch assigned to Earth’s Science and Technology Institute, mobilized for reconnaissance and sample collections in potentially dangerous regions. Of course, as was the case with Earth’s primary defense organizations, they were regularly utilized for discreet and crucial missions. They recited the same ethical oaths as their civilian counterparts, but sometimes their promises were bent and broken against the insurgents who scattered themselves across the terraformed planets within the solar system.
It was an exciting time in Brock’s life; as exciting as life could get for an enlisted grunt soldier, anyway. He earned an officer’s promotion years ahead of schedule due to exemplary performance, which offered him more downtime as well as his own private quarters, small but comfy with a telescreen and other details towards ease of life. He was also eligible to claim a sexual partner (one at a time at his current rank) at the Mate Exchange during downtime. The sexual act has always intrigued Charles, since he was still a virgin (most soldiers were due to the necessary dedication and location-specific training required for enlistment), but ESATI had arranged to temper his curiosity on the subject.
Earth scientists had discovered and experimented with a substance named Liquid Evolution. When applied to the human genome, many biological handicaps were erased or substantially diminished. A trained soldier could go up to eight hours or more without taking a breath to oxygenate his blood. Strength and senses were heightened, with bone density increasing by almost five hundred percent due to the manifestation of a strange fibrous membrane. The scientists realized through their observations that they were watching evolution accelerate before their very eyes.
Another interesting and unanticipated effect was the impact on primal genetic impulses. The pleasure threshold of the human orgasm was magnified exponentially, calculated at around ten times the dopamine triggering capabilities of concentrated opiates. Sexually active recipients of LE recorded momentary visitations to new planes of existence, melting sensations as if they were merging into one being with their partner, and other curious phenomena upon climax…
One would think this development would devolve human beings into sex-crazed beasts, but science was always one step ahead. Brain implants would dampen cravings for sexual release, activated only by an electronic pulse delivered by a specialized doctor. Essentially, they served the purpose of an on/off switch for the libido. This ensured focused and obedient soldiers in the field.
These soldiers often patrolled the abundance of planets in the solar system, existing now thanks to massive technological efforts. Beyond terraforming existing celestial bodies, planets were built from space matter and positioned for perfect rotation around with sun with powerful laser-based instruments. Most were around the size of Earth’s moon; some quite a bit larger, others slightly smaller. A few hundred or more were distributed in varying distances from the sun, with near-perfect atmospheric conditions for human life, in perfect harmony with the life-giving ball of fire in the sky. Colonies had begun to develop and flourish…
…until a decision was reached by the Chief Council with a majority vote. A mandate was declared that all humans originating from Earth be administered Liquid Evolution for their immediate benefit. The observed advantages were obvious; longer life spans, less susceptibility to disease, and the neutralization of mental illnesses.
There were rebellions, of course. Rumors of rare but horrific side effects resulting from LE exposure spread fear quickly. Others were simply weary of any government-sponsored requirements. The blanketing efforts of propaganda to instill reassurance throughout Earth and its colonies had only so much sway. Militias and guerrilla forces organized themselves, and soon a charismatic leader named Ian Fenwick condemned the Earth’s efforts towards dogmatic conquest. The war against Liquid Evolution had begun.
Charles waited for his squadron to make their rounds as he recorded the terrain around him with his datascope. The crackle of audiofeed from his thin plastic helmet contrasted the plip-plop-plips of thick rain with periodic bursts of coordinate confirmations and reports. The seven soldiers were dispatched to investigate heat signatures leaving the Martian atmosphere from this particular sector. Since the culprits were likely pod ships having already made their escape, no significant findings were expected.
Once the sweep was complete, the auxiliary objective was to take topographical surveillance scans since the sector was initially thought abandoned. Any unexpected human encounters were to be revolved according to the Commander’s discretion… he could simply pretend they didn’t exist, or apprehend them and decide their fate back at headquarters.
Sweeps usually took an hour or more, so Charles took to entertaining himself with his pulse modulators as he waited for his squadron to return. Taking aim at a large nearby rock, he extended his arm and directed his palm towards it, fingers outstretched. With a vsspt sound and a bright cyan burst, the antigravity mechanism activated, lifting the rock into the air. His arm experienced a slight strain before it steadied itself, raising the rock upward until it blocked out the faint visage of sun in the rain-drenched sky.
His visor scans measured the rock’s weight at almost a ton. Though he was accustomed by now to his equipment, he always marveled at the modulators which graced either of his gloves. Warfare had certainly come a long way since a decade before, with more humane and conscientious advancements. There was no longer a need for bullets; modulation pulses could stop an insurgent (or group of insurgents) in their tracks with half an effort, freezing them in place until they were fully disarmed. Many insurgents lives were spared when they would have been annihilated with other weapons, but the pulse modulators still had the capacity for violence. With a squeeze of the hand, an unlucky person would be crushed into a pretzel.
With a flick of his wrist, Charles tossed the rock to his left towards a large crater’s edge, some fifty yards away. It came down with an almost sickening thud upon the soaked Martian soil, rolling until it disappeared over the basin’s lip. He smiled at his own juvenile methods of amusement, until a stark red message abruptly appeared on his visor’s readings. TOPOGRAPHIC ABNORMALITY DETECTED.
Charles raised a brow and made his way towards the edge of the crater. A large pool of water had collected at its base, dancing frenetically with the rain. He panned his eyes around the crater’s bowl until a discovery was made; what looked like a cave had been exposed by a dislodged rock, seemingly placed there for camouflage. Aha, Charles thought to himself. Looks like me goofing off has its benefits after all.
After a careful approach with a steadied arm, he pulled the rock fully free to expose the entirety of the cave’s entrance. What he saw inside amazed him; empty ration containers stacked neatly and an old pair of discarded slippers, before the tunnel bled into the dark unknown. Someone had obviously lived here, or was living here. He dug his boots into the soft mud and stabilized his position.
“Surrender yourself at once,” Charles barked with a thick robotic voice, “or I cannot guarantee your safety!”
There was a Martian saying, “Nothing is stronger than the red rock”. This saying had many uses, especially in speaking about terraforming the planet, but also against the reason that brought the original refugees there in the first place. The saying claimed that by growing up on the red planet made you as strong as the rock you lived on. And, specifically, stronger than those on Earth who had been genetically modified. It was thought that the hardship of living on Mars not only made a person strong physically but also emotionally and mentially. Fastidious, inventive, jack-of-all-trades, and able to come up with a solution on a dime, Martians, for years now, did not consider themselves the same as “Earthers”, though both were still human.
Almost 100 years ago now, the first refugees of Earth had ran from the blue planet to the red one. It had taken time, but the planet had been built upon, first with a giant air capsule to build the main city in, but later, as the city expanded into towns and suburbs, other technology was fashioned to be able to create atmosphere in small areas, so that the population could traverse the cities outside. They felt they successfully had left the mother planet behind, and started their own families of Martians, proud of the red planet they called home.
Until, about two years ago, when Earth’s sticky fingers decided they wanted more. The tendrils of ships and soldiers started to descend into the atmosphere of the planet. And while Mars was not a pacifist planet, it could not beat thousands of years of warring history that Earth held. In addition, most of the refugees had left Earth so they didn’t have to join the military draft or be used to make the next round of combatants.
Once the Earthers beat back the Martian Air Force, it wasn’t long until word of a Martian draft started circulating among the cities and towns. Soon enough, the outlier suburbs were also overtaken by Earther councilmen and councilwomen who had been appointed to the controlling boards of the town. Important Martians went missing, and were never heard from again; disappeared in the night, rumor had it, by Earther soldiers. The air/space crafts would descend in the next town over, and soon, platoons of unmasked and armed soldiers would be marching across the street you once learned to first ride a hover-bike on.
Curfews went into effect, in varying degrees by city, and Martians were expected to have paperwork or documentation showing they were not rebel forces and were actually habitating in that town. The highway system for terrestrial vehicles was blockaded so that no Martians could flee, only to be utilized by the Earther army. Large places of congregation, city halls, convention centers, and places of worship were turned into militarized zones and cordoned off.
Essentially, Mars was locked down and had evolved into the largest prison in the universe, a whole planet.
As colorful propaganda played on screens and through the streets, talking about the amazing allowances Earth had given to the red planet, and how it had been saved, citizens were going hungry. There were ration lines and meager soup kitchens. “Earth: the Savior of Mars” stickers and pamphlets were plastered as far as the eye could see, but the once clean and well kept streets had become litter strewn and dark alleys where you could be stabbed by a fellow Martian for your ration creds, or questioned and detained by an Earther for “rehabilitation”, which could actually be considered worse than being stabbed for your currency.
There were few lucky families that saw the writing on the wall years before, as the Earthers made the once years long journey in just a few months, or as Mars deployed Martian soldiers on ship after ship that never returned, or, as the first city of Mars, New Athens, exploded under Earther fire, but that was propagandized to Earth, and now Mars, children was as a rebel suicide bomber. These families stole away rations and spacesuits for a time and then fled past the city’s boundaries in terrestrial vehicles.
There was not a mass exodus on the desert of Mars though, as once you left the outer barriers of the habitable locations, the man made atmosphere diffused and left you to the open vacuum of space. This was not something most families could face, as spacesuits were not readily available in the years since the invention of the atmobarrier. Really, you were more likely to have a spaceship, but those were shot down by the Earth battleships once they left the atmosphere. But those lucky enough to have some old space equipment were able take their family to the red planet’s mountains and caves to hide away from the invasion as much as possible. The chances of surviving were pretty much zero, and the life hard, but some found it a better life than the chance of rehabilitation.
After the first year, most runaways had died off, unable to feed themselves once their hoarded rations had run out. Mars’ landscape was still barren and unfarmable without biotechnology to adjust the red clay, the only food was what you brought with you. This also caused infighting amongst the deserters, killing each other over rations or prime places to live. Earther soldiers were often on the lookout for ex-townspeople or people they hadn’t seen before.
Between making the walk back from the desert without being spotted, getting into the atmobarrier without alerts calling attention to you, storing your ancient spacesuit in a place where someone wouldn’t steal it, picking up supplies that were already at an all time low for the occupants of the town or city, and not being recognized as a fugitive by the Earth soldiers, it made for a difficult possibility of living. Then, repeat the steps in reverse to get back into the desert.
But, it was what Olivia Draper did about once a month. She didn’t know of any other deserters anymore. Most had died off from lack of food, infighting, or exposure to the elements. In actuality, those who died of hunger, really would just open their helmet to the elements and put themselves out of their misery, or, as in the case of Olivia’s parents case, to save the food for their love one that had a better chance.
It was not long after the death of her parents, that she too, almost opened her helmet. But Olivia felt she didn’t want their deaths to be in vain, and decided to take her chances of going into town. She was dead either way, right?
As she perfected her process and path to her old town, Mycinde, she found a well hidden cave not too far from the town proper. She also had a new spacesuit now, nicked from one of the Earther soldiers who wasn’t using it any longer. Once she had taken the suit, she felt her life had become exponentially easier. She simply pretended to be the dead soldier, Anderson. This all made it easy to walk in, take rations, and leave again easy. Not to mention, the new spacesuit didn’t set sensors off like the old one did. In, out, and back to her cave.
After today’s haul, she was exhausted though. But even before she could put up her home-rigged atmobarrier, the rock that had primarily hidden the enterance to the cave had flown out of sight, as if God himself had lifted it. She readied her suits’ weaponry system, though she knew it was low on charge, and hid behind one of the interior rocks of the cave that she used as a bed.
Olivia had faced looters before, but not ones who had the ability to toss thousand pound rocks like a child’s toy. Then she heard the yelling, picked up by her suits’ audio system, “Surrender yourself at once, or I cannot guarantee your safety.”
Earther soldier, shit, she thought as she readied her plan. This was worse. As far as she knew the search parties for deserters had been eliminated long ago. What are they doing here? Someone in town must have finally given her up, even though she’d been so careful. She’d find out who that was after this was over, if she made it out alive.
“Comrade,” she yelled through her suits system, holding her blasters, ready to kill, “I’m just on a mission to clear duster bunkers!”
Olivia came out behind the rock, holding her palms up in a innocent manner, what used to be ‘I’m unarmed’ before the blasters were added to the palms of the Earther soldier’s suits. But she knew that her story would only last so long. Her suits sensors told her that only one other suit was present. Are they alone? she asked herself, but it didn’t matter. If it were a looter with a stolen suit like her own, or an actual Earther soldier, it was a problem that needed to be handled. She wasn’t able to be the longest living deserter without getting her hands a little dirty.
As the weapons of the other suit seemed to power down a little at the sight of her, Olivia decided it was indeed a Earther soldier. She then fired, straight at the soldier, then ducked and rolled, to avoid any return fire, back behind the rock she was before. She waited for a thud to come from the soldier hitting the ground, as her suit couldn’t risk too many more charges going off. Olivia made a mental note to try to charge the suit the next time she was in town. If there was a next time…
“I’m just on a mission to clear duster bunkers!”
It was very unlikely that an actual soldier wearing a retired Class C battlesuit would be proposing the explanation offered to him. Despite this, the raised hands of surrender had thrown Charles slightly off his guard with a briefly lowered his arm. Then came the pulse attack landing squarely against his chest; luckily his defense field was fully activated, neutralizing the assault with scattered blue tendrils. Had the preemptive measure not been utilized, it would have likely been a kill shot.
Though he was physically unharmed, the blast’s impact had pushed him back a few yards, and Charles found himself shin-deep in soft Martian soil. As he freed himself to even ground with the help of his gravity boots, the expected transmissions from his squadron’s corporal buzzed into his helmet.
“Lieutenant? Health monitors indicated a spike in your heart rate. Requesting a status report, over.”
Charles ignored them for the moment. His focus was now on neutralizing the hostile threat before him without any distractions. He activated the light amplification vector array on his helmet’s visor and concentrated it towards the cave where the assailant had retreated.
Inside the cave’s curl of shadow he saw the bright outlines of a rock and a heat signature hiding behind it. Gotcha, Charles thought to himself. He outstretched both of his arms and affixed the modulation grids of his gloves towards a convergence point. With his right arm he yanked the rock from its position towards the cave’s entryway, watching it topple into the mud below. With his left arm he pulsed a net matrix, paralyzing his startled target. With a come-here gesture of his hand, he pulled his incapacitated prisoner forward into the dingy light.
Sloppy footsteps amidst the still heavy rain made for a casual approach towards his prize. Charles managed his way to the cave’s entryway and with a flick of his wrist, straightened the head of his catch. You tried to kill me, Charles thought with a brief burst of anger. Now face your failure.
A quick inspection made his eyes widen briefly. Well hot damn, Charles thought to himself. A woman! He hadn’t seen a woman up close since before he was deployed to basic. His genuine surprise came out as a robotic purr from his voice audulator.
A scan of the suit which his attacker wore referenced a Corporal Robert Anderson, KIA some three months ago during a conflict against insurgent forces. Charles grunted while tossing around the next appropriate step in his head. He had his captive solid on attempted murder of an Earthen official, as well as stolen military property, probably nicked off the corpse of a soldier she actually murdered. Common military sense would be to end the stray’s life here. The novelty of a woman’s presence still lingered, though, and Charles couldn’t help but push an inquiry.
“Let’s try that again,” Charles muttered stiffly through his audulator. “Who are you? How long have you been here? How the hell did you obtain that suit?”
When her bed platform rock disappeared in front of her eyes, she knew she was fucked. Moments after that, while she was trying to find cover, her whole body froze and started moving towards her now captor. What sort of tech was this? she asked herself, incredulous that her whole body was just frozen in time, but she was still able to use her lungs and face muscles.
The sound of what could only be a purr which emanated from his suit made her unconsciously raise her top lip in disgust. Oh of course, the virginal Earther soldier.
And now, he was questioning her. Olivia eyed her helmet’s command system, wondering what she could really do. She contemplated opening her helmet and using her last breath to spit at his feet, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to end it all just yet.
The rain poured around the edge of the cave, and she knew she must answer soon, or he would likely kill her. He may still, even if she answered. Her survival instincts were beginning to override the disgust she held for the genetically modified, technically advanced invader that stood over her.
Pushing back the immediate response of What does it look like, Earthling? Instead, she feigned a weak voice and said, “I’m a refugee of the war. I’ve been hiding out here for a few years now, I don’t know how long.” Eight hundred and thirteen days, she thought in her head. She continued, “Would you be willing to let me get the atmobarrier up, so I could take off my helmet? I don’t have much of a charge left on the suit.”
This was actually true, Olivia tried hard to keep the charge of her suit up, and ever since they had genetically modified the soldiers to not need to breathe, and exist in vacuum without a helmet, for extended periods of time, they had really cut out the oxygen system in the latest space suits. She did have some time, but if she was going to get out of this, she didn’t want to waste it on the conversation.
Charles tossed the woman’s explanation around in his mind. Well, he thought, at least it sounds a bit more truthful. He relaxed his pulse modulator a bit to allow for some wiggle room from his captive. Another moment passed before his decision on the matter at hand was quietly made.
First thing’s first, Charles thought before acting on his next move. He activated his transceiver and radioed out a message from his audulator. “This is Lieutenant Brock responding, Alpha code 373-A. Biological target neutralized. Suit reading 87% capacity. Investigation pending. Direct three soldiers towards origin point to await further instructions. Others to continue sweep. Over.”
His focus then directed again towards the woman. “You should have told me that from the start. I report to ESTI, not the core military arm. You could have likely talked or bribed me into looking the other way.”
The invisible net which froze her in place was released with a spread of his fingers. Charles allowed for the woman to collect herself a bit before his next instruction.
“Get yourself straightened out here. Then take off your helmet and tell me your name.” It couldn’t be helped; Charles’ curiosity had displaced his otherwise staunch methodologies towards immediate threats. But his captivation didn’t allow for the absence of a warning.
“Try anything funny and I have three soldiers waiting in the wings. You won’t get out of this crater alive.”
Olivia was surprised he not only admitted to being bribable, but also that he let her loose to activate the atmobarrier. Not so eloquently, she slid to a sitting position, reaching for the power switch of the device. It was a metal triangle with each angle able to fold and unfold about twice the width of her palm. When it unfolded, the middle housed most of the working pieces and the power toggle. As she toggled it on, it hummed a bit. This particular version was rigged for about 15 yards of dependability.
Staying seated, she tossed it between the two of them a bit, and looked up at him again. “It’ll take about five minutes to be properly breathable.” After she tossed it, she crossed her legs in front of her, leaning back on her arms. It was a posture that seemed very relaxed, but in all actuality, put her in an okay position to kick him, or his hands specifically, if she felt she needed to.
They sat in silence as the barrier slowly but surely set itself up. Once her suit notified her the air was breathable, she let the latch of her helmet unhook. A small hiss emitted as the air seal broke and she removed the helmet over her face.
Dark blue-grey eyes looked up at the lieutenant, slightly wide set in a pale complected face with slight features. Her ink black hair was pulled back in a low bun to fit the helmet, but it also mostly was kept in the same configuration to keep it out of her face. As she powered down the suit, looking at her arm screen, she said, “My name is Olivia Draper and I am a war refugee. I only have this suit because I stole it from an already dead Earthli-,” she cut herself off, trying no to insult the person who held her life in his genetically modified hands. “Earth soldier,” she corrected and finished.
Though she was attempting to cooperate, she was not interested in begging for her life from this man. Olivia wasn’t against bribing him, but it’s not like the soldier didn’t have as many rations as he could ever want already, and besides the atmobarrier and the suit she wore now, she didn’t have much else to her name. She felt her body clench as she realized she could bribe him with her “womanly ways”, but wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the possibility of being raped and then left for dead either. But who’s to say he wouldn’t use that tech to do it without your consent anyways, her brain perked up, reminding her it could always be worse, as it often did.
“I’m just trying to survive. What do you want from me?” she tried.
Charles watched the woman closely as she tended to her atmobarrier before removing her helmet as instructed. Even with the required antiphrodisiac shots and libido-dampening brain implants, the presence of a woman’s face ignited a quiet, controlled lust. Olivia’s soft, pale skin had especially moved something within him.
He took in her slate eyes for a few moments, then slowly reached for his own headpiece. With a visible gust of pressurized release, his helmet lifted to reveal a pair of almond-shaped brown eyes that swirled with an emerald green. Charles’ well-framed face tapered down to a dimpled chin; a thin beard traveled back up to his sideburns and blackish-brown hair. A faded scar, lightened with time, traveled up from his left cheek towards his temple.
He studied the helmet in his hands, rolling it to check for any blemishes or cracks, then set it against his hip with an extended arm.
“We were deployed here because a series of heat signatures were detected parsing the atmosphere over this sector… likely several podships making their escape. I don’t suppose you know about anything about that?”
Charles let the question hang in the air for a brief moment, though he wasn’t seeking a direct answer to it. He latched his helmet to his utility belt and folded his arms, sensing something amiss with Olivia’s relaxed posture, then continued.
“Look,” Charles explained with a breath, “you might not believe it, but you’re lucky we crossed paths. Our orders were also to map out a topographical survey of the sector. That means the Earth military has taken an interest in occupying the area. Likely adjacent sectors as well, sooner rather than later. So in all honesty you should have left here days ago.”
He paused to analyze his own words. Where could she really go? Even if by some miracle she found another haven far from their current position, it’d only be a matter of time before it was systematically seized to further choke out any unaccounted strays. Mars was a big planet, but not so big it couldn’t be strangled by the hands of a hungry Earth empire. Olivia’s days were certainly numbered before her inevitable capture, death, or both.
There was, of course, an alternative. Charles wondered if it would be a waste of breath against Olivia’s suspicious ears, but it was worth a shot.
“There’s something else you can do,” Charles began hesitantly, gauging the interest in Olivia’s eyes. “Like I’ve said before, I report to ESTI. They’re a separate entity from Earth’s political council and not subservient to government authority. I don’t know what your understanding of the mandate is, but there’s some disagreement powerful Earthlings behind what you’ve seen on the telescreens.” Charles found it ironic that the institute which created Liquid Evolution also cautioned against its widespread application to the deaf ears of overzealous politicians.
“ESTI has unofficially sanctioned a refugee program within the scope of its administrative reach, to both Earthlings and Martians alike. If you declare your eligibility now, you’d be assigned a domicile on Earth’s moon with a fixed credit allowance. You’d also be guaranteed asylum from political influence for at least an Earth year.”
There was one final addendum to Charles’ offer. “I’d have to sponsor your registration to the program.” The tone in his voice said also, “You’d have to trust me.”
Startled slightly by his choice to remove his helmet also, Olivia wondered if he was attempting to prove himself human to her. While he was technically human, she wondered how much humanity was really left in the man.
“I don’t know anything about any podships,” she told him truthfully. Olivia had heard rumors about such, but because she was not interested in attempting to leave the planet, she had not investigated further, but she didn’t know anything about it.
She pushed back a few strands of hair that had been jostled from the order of the tightly pulled hair of her head. In doing so, she inadvertently scuffed her forehead with some of the red dirt from the ground. Her whole suit was mostly covered in red, despite the rain, as she often did not leave her place of safety during storms. They were just another reason that not many of her kind survived, as they could go from normal storm to shifting sands beneath your feet in minutes.
Why yes, I am so lucky, she thought to herself, suppressing a roll of her eyes and he continued on about some organization he was a part of. EDI? STI? she couldn’t remember, nor did she care too much about the inner workings of his genocidal planet, nor had she really seen any telescreens for the last few years.
Unfortunately though, he wasn’t exactly wrong, if there were soldiers here there would likely be construction here before long enough. She needed to do something, but to put her trust in a man she just met, from the planet that had attacked hers made her stomach twist into knots. While Olivia was not interested in leaving her home planet, she was interested in surviving. And what will he do with me if I say no? she asked herself as she looked out into the distance, though slightly foggy due to the atmobarrier and the rain.
How could she trust an Earthling, and a soldier one at that? Olivia also felt like she was running out of time. She knew that others were on their way to back him up, and she wasn’t particularly interested in having to fend off four Earthers. The clock was ticking and all she could think about was how she would be leaving her parents’ and brother’s bodies behind all the while walking into the open arms of the planet they fought so hard to hide from.
“What’s the catch?” she asked cautiously, knowing nothing came for free, especially on Earth.
A curious look of relief climbed its way to the surface of Charles’s face through layers of carefully managed indifference. The consideration he tossed towards Kelyn was basically an afterthought, but she entertained it with due process without an ounce of condescension. Maybe they’d get along, after all. Ch
Charles couldn’t help but stare at the woman… she was simply fascinating in a sobering way. Olivia looked so clearly defeated, as if trying to decide between hell or worse. Despite this, she seemed ready to fight tooth and nail until her last spiteful breath, prompting a quiet admiration within him.
The tired looked in her eyes suggested she was ready for Charles to cut to the chase. He had been speaking to her as if she was under his command, ready to absorb and act upon a briefing, with acronyms and terms under her belt of understanding. Instead she was a barely keeping up, just a survivor living day-to-day as best she could amidst the creeping hellscape around her. Trust was a commodity that Olivia couldn’t afford, it seemed. But Charles knew she understood the writing was on the wall. Sooner or later, Earth would fully lay claim to its red sister planet.
“You’d have to register for an occupation within the labor networks, four days a week. And report to me once a week.” Charles delivered the latter point softly, as if to cushion a blow.
He continued to observe quietly. Olivia looked quite attractive, though Charles had few comparisons of beauty to reference during his swift climb in ranks. He had submitted himself unequivocally to his military’s program, underwent numerous enhancement surgeries, and volunteered his submission to experiments with Liquid Evolution. There was no time for the curiosities of flesh; only to focus on what was right in front of your eyes. And yet, a mere chance encounter with the fairest sex had thrown him off his stride. You can make a soldier out a man, but you can’t take the man out of the soldier, he supposed.
Charles opened his mouth to speak, but clamped it shut with a second thought. He was going to explain that Olivia could stay here if she so chose, with a thirty-six hour window before a scout ship arrived to commence further investigation. She should be careful to avoid them, since they wouldn’t take too kindly to her choice of suit…
…except their vector scan arrays were state of the art and would sniff her out before she had the chance to react. It was a hopeless endeavor to stay here. Encouraging a stay of circumstances would only ensure Olivia’s doom.
With a sigh, Charles reset himself. “If those terms are acceptable to you, I guarantee you’ll be sleeping on a bed within 24 hours.” Silently, he savored his prolonged authority, but yearned for Olivia’s trust as well.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” she said harshly as Charles finished saying the words ‘labor networks’. She barely registered anything that came after those words. Suddenly, Olivia was on her feet. The soldier was suddenly back, and defensive, “Calm down,” she mocked, “I’m just pacing, I’m pissed. You’ve made it perfectly clear that I can do nothing against you and that suit.”
And then she did begin to pace, soon the red rising in her cheeks, though less of the orange hue of the planet, and more of a rosy color. At first, she would just look back at him as she paced, start to say something and then stop herself, then turn back to pacing. “Fucking kidding me,” would be heard under her breath as she moved back and forth, mostly after she had looked at him. Her gloved hands moved from clenched fists, to fiddle with her hair, and back again.
Finally, with one hip splayed out, and a hand on that hip, Olivia Draper looked the Earther soldier square in the face for the first time. Her anger was palpable in the air, but so was her quiet desperation. Looking up at him, she took him in, highest-tech suit, somewhat tanned skin, from the UV rays of a planet that wasn’t actively trying to kill him. He had it so easy, and here he was trying to “help” her.
“I’m not sure if you know this, but if I wanted to be put on an allowance, kept track of, and to provide labor,” she put air quotes around the last two words, “I could have walked into that city eight hundred and twelve days ago!” She gestured at the town of Mycinde, and paced away from him again, then gestured back again, “I would have just told my parents to fucking leave me. I could have been sleeping on a bed instead of a rock formation,” she mocked him again, “for the last two and a half years.”
“But instead, I packed up with my parents and my brother, and all of our food and none of our worldly possessions, in a two car terrestrial cart, and drove off in the desert. Do you know why, Earthling?” she asked, but didn’t pause to let him answer. “We did it, because dying in the desert was still a better life than the one your planet planned to commit a mass genocide of our planet with!” Her face was really red now, and she could feel the hot, angry tears stinging her eyes. Her hands gestured wildly, something that a historically spacesuit-bound populace had adapted to do to show emotions and expressions that were lost in the suit.
She was in his face again, getting angrier that he didn’t seem phased and that she knew he could likely see the tears welling up in her eyes. “I didn’t bury my family in the desert just to move to Earth’s moon like a good little Martian slave!” she yelled, and beat her fist into his chest. It was instinctual, but with the mix of his shield and low gravity, she was knocked back into the dirt on her ass without him even moving a muscle.
It felt like a metaphor for the whole situation. A Martian, fighting to live without interference, and the Earther not even having to move a muscle to knock them in the dust. Wiping away the fallen tears, jostled by the fall, her face was caked with more dust and mud, leaving her with two wide red stripes under her eyes and one, upwards, in the middle of her forehead. She was the epitome of a Martian, stolen tech, red dust war paint on her face, and anger like the war god himself. And now even more so: still angry, but broken and tired, with little chance left.
As Olivia was wiping her face, three soldiers appeared through the atmobarrier. The barrier washed over them, almost like water, then sealed behind them. For a second, Olivia couldn’t breathe, but the lieutenant didn’t seem phased. Still on the ground, Olivia contemplated getting back to her feet, but worried that would cause an adverse reaction from the new soldiers.
“Ah, what have we here, boss? Nice catch,” one of the incoming soldiers said off-handedly as he popped his helmet off with a hiss. One of the others reported, “We heard some muted yelling through the barrier and your heart rate spiked again. We thought we’d come in for back up, just in case.”
The first soldier walked towards Oliva and offered her a hand to stand. She took it, but very hesitantly. Once she was on her feet, he swept her into his arm and leaned over her, like the Earth-iconic picture after the second world war. “C’mere little alien, give me a kiss” he said and tried to put his lips on hers. His hand was tight around her waist, as she attempted to push against his chest to get away from him. “Stop,” she tried, slightly jokingly at first, but then said it more forcefully. “Stop.”
He was about to actually touch her lips with his, and Olivia’s mind was racing. She knew they were genetically enhanced to be stronger, especially if she was only surviving on one ration a day. Doing the only thing she could contemplate, she threw the heel of her palm into his nose. He dropped her immediately to grab his now bleeding nose, “Martian bitch!” And for the third time in the last hour, Olivia was on the ground. She and her suit were now lightly sprinkled in the outside rain and some of the blood of the soldier.
Quickly, she slid away from him to get her back against one of the walls. The man’s nose was stopping bleeding, and he was moving towards her again, “Get back here.”
“That’s enough, corporal,” the original soldier said to him sternly, and he slowed. Olivia looked at him, her face saying Don’t you see why I’ve hidden so long?
The corporal turned back to his commander, his words slightly slurred by his nose, “So what are you planning to do with this fucking duster?”
Before Charles had a chance to address the corporal’s question about Olivia, Private Thompson chimed in his thoughts. “I say we all have a turn, tha’s what I think, yeah.” The sentiment roused a consensus of hoots and hollers, save for Charles who looked on with narrowed eyes. The situation was deteriorating fast, with the Lieutenant Commander trying to round up a pack of rabid dogs pulling hard on their leashes.
“Ay, the bitch has a military issue outfit!” The corporal snorted blood through his nose and swallowed after making his observation, then approached Olivia again with a slow prowl and kneeled close to her face. “You fucken offed one of our guys to get that, huh? Alla you Martian strays should be strung up with a rope to clean up the gene pool, that’s what I say.”
Another round of sneers and taunts were hurled at Olivia before being curtly interrupted by Charles. “Corporal, I said that’s enough! Do not make me say it again.”
The corporal turned slowly to meet Charles’ searing stare, then hopped to his feet sarcastically. He took a few steps towards his Commander, eyeing him down with a wordless challenge, before leveling his voice. “Well, sir, my apologies. I didn’t know you were havin’ feelings for a fucken red stray who capped one of our own.”
Charles stood his ground without the slightest movement. “I’d be careful of what you say next, corporal. Very, very careful.”
Hicks’ face slowly pulled into a frown. He took a moment before snorting his dissatisfaction, then turned his attention to the other soldiers. “Aye, I’m happy for the Commander. She’s a looker after all, be good for breedin’ and such, right?” The soldiers laughed nervously, keeping their eye on Charles. There was a standoff afoot, and Hicks was no slouch. But neither was their Commander.
“I mean look at her.” Hicks extended his arm towards Olivia as if to present his case. “Little girl like that taking a grunt’s life. Probably slithered right behind him and carved his neck before he even knew what the fuck happened. Or showed her tits and mesmerized him before the big slice, aye?” His audience regained a bit of their rowdiness with a few choice insults. Charles stood quiet and still, Hicks fully in his sights.
“Yeah, I mean, I think you’d all agree, despite her luscious ass ‘n such, that maybe a bitch like this might be better off dead.” And with a lunge towards Olivia, Hicks activated his pulse blade, intent on a killing blow.
And then the blur. Charles had moved so fast the soldiers barely comprehended what happened. Hicks was now pinned against the wall with Charles’ forearm planted squarely against his neck.
“HICKS. RIGHT NOW. CALM DOWN!” Hicks’ arm dangled with the blue blade still glowing, restrained against the cave wall with a knee, as Charles yelled directly in his face.
“IF this woman is a MURDERER,” Charles continued, still loud and fierce, “then the COURTS will determine her fate. Not US. We act according to EARTH law.” Upon hearing the pulse blade deactivate, Charles loosened his grip by the slightest bit. “And you ACTED against my ORDER, corporal. I’d half a mind to CENSURE your insubordinate ass.”
Hicks grunted and groaned, his nose bleeding freely again. Charles turned to see the soldiers, huddled and watching, with Thompson’s arm acting as a barrier against intervention. Satisfied that things were now under control, he pulled his weight off of Hicks, though his fists were still primed for another round.
“All of you, escort Hicks to the pod and get him patched up. I’ll be there shortly.” And with that, Charles extended an arm to Olivia, still sitting against the wall.
As his hand extended to her, the air left the area for a moment again. She shook her head after the breath returned to her lungs, dusting herself off. “I took one of your hands before, and look where it got me.” On her feet again, she looked up at him, backing away, and shaking her head again. “I’m not going with you. With,” she paused, looking for words, “that.“
With a soft sigh, Charles nodded at Olivia’s decision, though the look in his eyes seemed far from accepting it. “They were way out of line, for sure. I understand your position.” He then directed his eyes to his armband and began to punch a sequence of buttons on the miniscreen.
“I’m sorry for this,” Charles offered, but by the time Olivia heard the words it was too late. A strong sedative seeped into her neck through the soldier’s suit she wore, meant as a neutralizing agent for rogue soldiers. But as the confirmation screen confirmed success on his miniscreen, the auditory hum of a powerdown was heard as well. The last of Olivia’s suit’s reserves had been exhausted.
A cold chill ran through Olivia, though the sun was still on the same side of the planet. Her eyes fluttered and she stumbled a bit, but still tried to aim her body away from the last soldier. “Did you drug me?” she sputtered as she crumpled back to the ground, her eyes opening and closing, as if she was falling asleep but after a few moments awakening again.
The offer for a couple’s massage caught Charles completely off-guard, prompting an embarrassed bite Charles wouldn’t answer, only watch as Olivia stumbled about, her eyes fighting the sedative with futile resistance. A few moments would pass, however, and he would sense something was wrong. Olivia should have already fell limp to the ground, but some conscious babbling was still leaking through as she meandered the cave. He realized the powerdown probably negated the full effect of the sedative. “Shit,” he thought to himself as continued to observe, hoping for a better chance to seize and collect her.
Olivia’s face scrunched up, confused, in what likely was the softest expression she’d made in the last few months or even years. “Why am I so cold?” she asked, almost a whisper. She was slipping in and out of consciousness now, her body leaning against the cave wall, with her knees pulled close to her chest. She was clearly confused and starting to lose her grip on what was happening around her.
His eyes trailed Olivia as she surrendered herself to a corner, seemingly lost in another world or unsure of the one she was in. Charles approached slowly and cautiously so as not to alarm her, then knelt down to take a look at her eyes. They were dilated almost to the point of swallowing the slate color that surrounded them. He took another moment to ponder his next move. He reached for an old blanket in the cave and draped it around Olivia’s shoulders. Then, he spoke in a low voice to match her question. “It’s okay. You’re home, Olivia,” he said through a breath.
With his face closer to hers now, quickly her eyes flickered up to his, “August?” She asked, incredulous. “August! Where have you been?” Her hand, moving as if it weighed fifty pounds, reached out to Charles’ face. “I looked all over for you, little brother.”
She smiled softly at him, though it seemed she was confused by something that she just couldn’t place. “Did you come to get me out of here, finally, Auggie?” she asked, fumbling to twirl a strand of his hair around her finger playfully.
Slowly, carefully, he guided Olivia’s hand between both of his palms. “Yes, Olivia, it’s time to go.” Charles assumed the less he said, the better as he lifted himself onto his feet as a prompt for her to do the same. “We don’t have far to go. Just come with me,” he encouraged while curling a slight smile across his lips.
She tried to get up to follow him, but didn’t seem like she was actually able to get up. As this occurred, she tried to cover her weakness by pulling on his hand and saying, “Wait, did you already get Mamá and Papá? Or do we need to go get them?” It was clear though, she was trying to hide her inability to get up from, what she thought was, her younger brother. Her other hand brushed the side of her face absently, smearing more dust and mud, and now even blood, on her face and hair.
“Mamá and Papá are waiting for us.” Charles copied her enunciations as exactly as he could, shifting forward to allow for Olivia to use his arm as a brace. “Ups-a-daisy,” he said through a grunt, helping her to her feet and guiding her towards the cave’s entrance. With calculated steps, they approached their helmets laying on the wet cave floor. Charles reached for his and presented it to Olivia. “You have to put this on. Just for a little bit,” he explained as he activated the oxygen feed. Then, after latching her helmet to his belt, they approached the edge of the atmobarrier.
Olivia held her hand out to and through the atmobarrier, giggling. “Okay, Auggie.” After a few steps she looked at him from the side, fumbling a bit, “Where have you been?”
They parsed the barrier, slowly but surely making their way up the crater’s bowl to the level ground around it. Charles considered his answer to Olivia’s question. “Looking for you, silly.” He hoped it would quell any further questions until they loaded onto the ship.
“But where?” she insisted as they neared closer to the ship where Charles was leading her. As it began to rain on them, raindrops pinging of their helmets, she looked up and laughed again, leaning further into him. “Remember when I told you the rain outside atmo was acid and you were afraid of it for a whole month?” Olivia full smiled now, looking up at him. “I really miss those days,” she added under her breath.
“I do too, I do too.” Charles was engaging Olivia’s questions and comments with the vaguest responses he could muster. The podship’s door slid open as they closed in, and Charles made a swift hand gesture towards his seated squadron, instructing them to keep quiet. “Let’s get you seated now, we’re almost on our way,” Charles explained while guiding her inside the ship towards the Commander’s cabin.
As the two walked past, Olivia felt a sharp swipe against her thigh. With the suit completely dead, it was little more than a jumpsuit at this point, except in the places that had armored regions, such as the chest plate. “Ow…” she said suddenly, as if the rip of her skin brought her a little more back into the real world, she pulled away from Charles immediately, and backing up, directly into the seated soldiers.
“Wait, what is going on?” she asked, more clear now, and trying to maneuver away from all of the soldiers and back out of the ship. “You’re not August,” she added, accusatorily at Charles, as blood began to weep down her left outer thigh.
Charles leaned forward in his chair and studied the image carefully. Nothing about it triggered any inWith a snap of his fingers, Charles had activated the podship’s lockdown protocols. The soldiers watched and waited as Olivia became more aware of her surroundings… of her situation. Panic quickly seeped into Olviia’s face as her escape was obstructed, and Charles thought thought on his feet. He reached for a medkit and dumped the contents to find the syringe of morphine, then rushed Olivia while thrusting it into her shoulder. “It’s okay, shhhh,” Charles said near her ear while cradling her back with his arms, ready to support her before she went limp.
The doors slammed shut behind her and suddenly there was a full G of pressure on her. She crumpled a little, but with a flash, Charles was on her and all of a sudden, there was another sharp feeling and she was out. She fell roughly into the ready arms of Charles.
The Bloodhawk podship had been spaceborne for three days, having now passed the artificial planet X-7SC. Olivia sat asleep in the typically vacant co-commander’s chair, strapped by her wrists and ankles with an improvised IV feed of morphine fed into her arm. Her thigh wound was cleaned taped with medical-grade gauze, and her head was cleaned haphazardly with antimicrobial agents. She slept mostly undisturbed, with the soldiers ordered to stay some distance away. A force-fed capsule tended to Olivia’s bodily excretions, rendering them inert and reabsorbed into her body.
Since the podship’s departure, Charles kept busy outside his normal quarters with command post messages, as well as laying down reprimands to his squadron, especially Corporal Hicks. On occasion, when the soldiers were tending to duties, Charles quietly monitored the Martian refugee. His hand’s palm graced Olivia’s forehead to check for fever, worried that infection may rear its head despite their disinfectants and wound dressings.
The quiet lust came and went as well. Charles conjured up scenarios in his mind where he and Olivia would come to terms despite their rocky encounter on Mars, then build over time towards a lover’s embrace underneath a soft bed’s covers. Practically, though, he knew that could never happen. He had almost certainly earned her venomous spite for the rest of his days, a reality he somberly accepted. Despite this, he was still determined to ensure her safety with ESTI’s refugee program and hold true to his word. He decided he could reconcile his urges towards the Mate Exchange during his upcoming leave. Of course, the forty days from now back to Earth had to be conquered first.
The IV slowly and surely dripped its contents into Olivia, ensuring her silent compliance. Slowly and surely, however, the morphine ran its course, and the time came when a withered bag indicated Olivia’s looming return to consciousness. To ensure a minimum of ruckus, Charles stayed with Olivia to try and pacify her likely panic. Outside the commander’s quarters, soldiers peeked in ever so briefly, with Hicks’ scowl almost caught by the Commander’s watchful eye.
Finally, a twitch, and Olivia opened her eyes to see Charles before her, seated and waiting.
Waking from what felt like her death, Olivia found the commanding soldier staring at her. Almost with a groan, she found her limbs restrained. “I must be like a hundred and twenty-five pounds at this point. I’ve been sustaining on one ration a day for at least a year. I also have a dead suit,” she squints her eyes at him, “Do you really think I’m such a danger to you and your crew that I have to be restrained? Four big bad Earther soldiers can’t handle a little duster like me?” She wasn’t sure why she continued to mock him, maybe because he let her, but after she had spoken, she wondered if it were really her best course of action.
Olivia was even still groggy, but he didn’t need to know that part. And she was unsure if they had even left Mars yet, though probable. It didn’t seem like they were looking to stay on the planet for long. She took in her surroundings, she seemed to be in a room of sorts. Internally rolling her eyes she thought, It’s probably his room. Looking around more, she did at least count herself lucky that she still had the original suit that she had when she left Mars. Thigh slice and all.
Contemplating her options, she recognized that she likely was headed to Luna, Earth’s moon as a political refugee. It seemed, despite her protests, that is what he had decided for her, and there wasn’t much she could do about that now. Her eyes finally fell back upon him, her face resting in an unsurprised but slightly perturbed look. “Take a hologram, it’ll last longer,” she added without thinking.
Charles stood with his arms folded, leaning against a wall as he absorbed Olivia’s taunts without reaction. She could see his fingers drum, slowly at first with gradual intensification, thap-thap-thapping against his bicep. When she was finished with her quips, Charles narrowed his eyes, then reached into his pocket to reveal what looked like a small circuit board and held it between his thumb and forefinger for Olivia to observe.
“So,” Charles began with a heavy breath, “your story with that soldier suit of yours checked out. This is our equivalent of a black box recording retrieved from your suit. You definitely had nothing to do with his death.”
Charles then turned to the telescreen hanging beside him to activate it with a fingerprint sensor.
Olivia would see a screen of flat earthy red at first, until it became apparent that it was an overhead view of her home planet, with what looked like black and white ants maneuvering themselves upon it… Earthen soldiers was the obvious assumption. A pan scan then pulled the view to almost ground level… and a piece of blanket and ration tray could be seen peeking through from the ground, occasionally swallowed in shadow by someone passing. It became abundantly clear that the crater she once called home had been leveled by Earth’s forces.
“It turns out,” Charles continued, “that those heat signatures were spypods with origin points from Planet X-23L. It seems as though there’s been some collaboration with X-23 and Martian insurgents. Your sector and all adjacent sectors have been upended for a thorough investigation by Earth’s forces.” He paused to glare into Olivia’s eyes. “I certainly hope you didn’t know anything about that.”
He took a moment for the implication of his words to hang in the air. Then Charles reached into his opposite pocket and pulled out a small rectangular packet. The words MILITARY ISSUE ran in white letters across an olive green wrapping. He tossed it upon Olivia’s lap and followed it with a few words into the air: “Release restraints on co-commander’s chair, alpha code A731-B.” Olivia’s bindings immediately retreated into the chair’s legs and armrests, freeing her.
“It’s a meal bar,” Charles explained to Olivia as he nodded towards the green package. “Eat it or don’t.”
Olivia wouldn’t have any time to supply her opinions on the matter. Charles, it seemed, was on a tear. He then yelled towards his cabin’s door, “HICKS! Get in here!”
Corporal Hicks, the soldier which has almost killed Olivia, then opened the door and entered without hesitation. His steps were somber as he ten-hutted in front of her, seemingly ready to obey further orders.
“Hicks,” Charles directed as he watched his subordinate closely. “Apologize to the Martian woman. Her name is Olivia.”
“Olivia, I sincerely apologize for my repugnant attempt on your life three days ago. I have since been severely reprimanded and stripped of rank.” It seemed as though Hicks’ teeth were grinding slightly in between his words.
“Hicks,” Charles continued, “after this meeting, explain what will happen if you come within twenty feet of Olivia, or activate weapons towards her person, without my explicit direction.”
“My suit,” Hicks explained with a sigh, “will inject me with a potent tranquilizer, rendering me unconscious instantaneously. I will then be surrendered to a hypersleep chamber for a year’s time until I am awakened for rehabilitation and labor camp duties, within a sentence of not less than two years.” His eyes wavered with quiet resentment.
“All right then.” The rumbles of drumming fingers stopped. “Turn your eyes to me, and speak freely.”
Hicks did so without a second’s respite. “I still don’t trust her Commander, and neither should you. She may not have offed that soldier but she was up to something in that god-forsaken crater. And even if we stopped whatever it was she was doin’, she’ll find something to do on Luna. Something we’ll all regret.” Hicks stopped himself there, sure that he had pushed his limit.
Charles eyed Hicks close, then nodded briefly. “Your concerns have been noted, Private. Now please leave Olivia and I alone.” And with that, he left the cabin and back to his duties as a squadron cadet.
His attention then turned to Olivia once more. “Your arms and legs are free. Move around, get your blood moving.” Then came the sarcastic addendum. “Or just sit on your ass and seethe all you want.”
As the restraints zipped back inside the chair, she pulled her hands together, rubbing her wrists at the point the restraints were. Most everything after that was a blur of machismo showmanship on behalf of and for the commander. However, it was hard to hide at least some of the surprise on her face when Private Hicks apologized.
Silently, she took the meal bar and started to unwrap it. After taking a bite, chewing, and swallowing, she looked up to the commander, pulling one leg across the other. “Not all Martians know each other, and not all Martians are rebels, you know,” she said without a hint of sarcasm or malice.
Charles, still stout in his assertions, snorted his sarcasm. “Not every Martian I’ve met has blasted me in the chest with a weapon either.” He shook his head and turned off the telescreen, then looked straight into Olivia’s eyes. “I could have died, or perhaps been incapacitated. Then you would have really been fucked. Lovey Dovey Hicks was next in command at the time. I’m sure you’d still be on Mars right now with him in charge… though alive or dead…?” He let the question hang in the air with a soft shrug of his shoulders.
They sat in silence as Olivia quietly ate the meal bar, not speaking a word to his accusation. She mostly looked down at the large MILITARY ISSUE letters of the wrapper in her hand. Once she was finished, she got up slowly from the chair and paced around the room, though not angrily this time.
“So now what?” she asked, facing him upon one of the paces. “Now, you just ship me off to some labor camp and call yourself a hero?” there still wasn’t any malice in her voice, but she continued. “If that was the plan all along, why not just leave me at the one in Mycinde and be done? Or, why not just let me die in my cave?” she asked, genuinely trying to understand why she was in transit to Luna.
Exhaling a soft frustration, Charles locked on to Olivia’s eyes. “Let me ask you this: why does it seem like you’re on a mission to die right now?” He wouldn’t wait for a quippy answer, instead reaching for a portable telescreen and turning it on with a thumbprint. A graphic of a large glass building displayed, with the acronym ETSI superimposed upon it with block letters.
“That’s who I report to… Earth’s Technological and Science Institute. We might look like a bunch of military assholes…. and maybe one or two of us are…” Charles passed a casual glance through his cabin door out to the soldier’s station. “But we swore an oath to honor and protect the sanctity of life whenever possible. Given that we sometimes have to shoot at things,” Charles sighed, “the oath was changed from “without fail.”
“And,” Charles continued without a hiccup, wise to Olivia’s injection of quips, “I’ll save you the sob story, but I abandoned someone in my past long ago, and regret it every day. Maybe that was an undue motivation to try and save you, but it is what it is.”
“Any other questions?” Charles said as he folded his arms.
“Yes,” she quirked quickly, after his diatribe, “Why do you seem to think that a labor camp is any life I would want to have? Or anyone for that matter?” His continued speech just pointed out how convoluted his world was. She ignored the screen and waved it away, unimportant.
“The question is less ‘why did you save me?’ And more ‘why do you think a labor camp means saving?’” She pointed out willfully. “I know literal hundreds of Martians who risked their lives and lost them to the desert, or each other, to avoid said labor camps.”
Finally, she returned to the chair she was in previously and crossed her arms across her chest. “What you’re doing is not saving. It’s enslavement under the guise of saving.” One eyebrow quirked up at him, wondering how he was going to take the questioning of most of the system his life seemed devoted to.
Charles opened his eyes with the briefest exasperation, then moved the telescreen into Olivia’s sight once more. “Okay, another thing to iron out. I admit that Earth pushes its propaganda hard onto all the Martians it can reach. But the counter-propaganda is just as bad.” He navigated to a subsection of the digital brochure, called “Labor Communities.” Pictures of seemingly content workers were rotated, as well as interior pictures of pleasant-if-not-quaint domiciles and robust cafeterias.
“I’d say labor CAMP has a bad connotation. They’re self-contained communities run by elected Martian councilmen. Assigned work duties are admittedly a requirement, but the hours are fair and there are frequent observations for the well-being of workers.” He paused to consider his next point. “I have a good friend who lives in one now.”
“But you’re right,” Charles conceded, “there are OTHER types of camps. You just happen to be not on your way to one of those.”
Once again, Olivia did not pay attention to his screen, waving it off as more propaganda. It was clear that this Earther did not allow his mind to go further than his planet told it to. The bottom line was, she was now off Mars and headed to Luna and she was going to have to do her best with what was given. She worked hard to not continuously roll her eyes at him.
“So how long until we get there, again,” she looked at his suit, for the first time since all of this began, for his last name, “Commander…. Brock?” This question was tinged with with sarcasm and followed with a humorless smile. “And what am I supposed to do until then?”
Olivia was unsure if, though proven not guilty of killing her suit’s owner, if she was to still be treated as a prisoner of this ship. She also didn’t know how well Private Hick’s cronies from the cave would behave if they didn’t have the same punishment of his. Perhaps being a prisoner would be safer? she wondered to herself as Olivia tried to figure out her next move.
The sobering reality had begun to sink in. Olivia simply was not going to listen to him. The distrust within her had fully risen to the surface, or perhaps it was stubborn spite. Charles pushed an exhale though his lips and then drew his eyes to his telewatch.
“Let’s see… thirty-nine days, seventeen hours, thirty-four minutes, and nine seconds until arrival at Luna base.” He absorbed the surefire onslaught of complaints, and then offered a kernel of consolation. “Flying through space has a strange way of making months feel like days. Just don’t focus on the time left.”
“As far as your sleeping situation,” Charles continued, “you have two options. Here in my cabin…” A punch in his telewatch activated a horizontal Murphy-style bed that pulled down from the wall behind Olivia. It looked cozy enough despite the bland military colors, with a soft mattress, blankets and pillows, as well as what looked like a temperature control module and dials for various other customizations. Charles wouldn’t dwell on the option and turned to the telescreen.
“Or the prisoner’s quarters.” A thumbscan turned the telesceen on once more, feeding a view from a surveillance camera. It showed the interior of the prisoner’s quarters, pewter-colored and cold to the eyes, with a stiff slab for a bed jutting from one of the walls as well as a toilet recessed into another wall. No further comfort was offered.
“i’ll be sure to deactivate the surveillance for your privacy,” Charles commented, though he was sure Olivia wouldn’t believe him. And then, assuming the decision was already made, he nodded towards the blanket and pillows on the Murphy bed. “You can take those with you if you like. Breakfast is at 0800. I’ll come and release you then.”
Slipping past him to gather the pillows and blanket, under her breath she said, “I don’t expect you to be clearing your quarters anytime soon, so,” Olivia trailed off, letting the implication fall as it may. “Care to shaw me to my quarters?” she dead panned and moved to walk from the commander’s quarters.
After a walk down a few corridors and being assured that Commander Brock was the only one with the ability to open the door, Olivia found herself in the previously viewed, drab, prisoner’s quarters. Ironically, it almost felt like her cave on mars, with some upgrades like plumbing. Tossing the pillows on the bed-like slab, Olivia curled up in the blanket and leaned against the wall adjacent to the bed. Letting her head fall back against the wall, it wasn’t long until she felt sobs wracking her war-warn, malnourished body.
Crying wasn’t an activity that Olivia made a habit, but it was as if everything just hit her all of a sudden. Closing her eyes, the tears streamed down either side of her face in silence. While she counted herself lucky that the last three days of Earther-induced coma did not present her with dreams. Thinking on it now, she wasn’t sure she would have been able to handle those. Lightly sedated Olivia didn’t seem to know better that she had watched both of her parents and brother die, but she knew better. And now, any ties she ever had to them were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of miles away.
Eventually, the sobbing stopped and she curled into a ball on the slab, though resting her head on the pillows, an amenity she hadn’t had for quite some time. The red glow of the door lock reminded her, though, of the prisoner she was. It wasn’t as if she could come and go as she pleased. She was locked in until the commander allowed her out. Closing her eyes tighter, she tried to push it all out of her mind, and soon found herself in a dreamless slumber.
The sound of the door unlocking with a clank woke her quickly. Instinctively, she sat up right almost instantly and held a palm out, forgetting the suit was completely dead. After a breath, she heard the commander’s voice from one of the speakers near her, alerting her that it was breakfast and her door was unlocked to her. After calming herself from being startled out of sleep, she undid her hair, now a mess from the almost five days without being brushed, and contemplated her plan for the day. She wasn’t sure if she would be required to do tasks or if she was just expected to report to eat and then back to her cell.
Once she had run her fingers through her hair to the best of her ability, she worked it into a braid. The black strands almost fell to the middle of her back, at their longest now. Absently, she checked the cut on her thigh as she went to open the door. As she pressed the open button and re-attached her gause, she ran directly into the large chest of a soldier she hadn’t seen before. Or at least, one she did recognize as being in the cave that day.
Bouncing back immediately, her guard was up, wondering if there was going to be trouble. But suddenly, the chest rumbled out, “I’m Chief Science Officer Amos Holden. Don’t worry I don’t want to hurt you.” Olivia eyed him, not really trusting him. But he continued, “I’m more of the science aspect of ESTI, less of a soldier, you see.”
The only thing Olivia saw was that he was likely the only person on the ship that was bigger than the commander, and that he had an almost Martian-like lilt to his hand motions. Though she was still taking him in, he continued still, “While I still am an Earther, I study aspects of Mars, and other up-coming planets, to better preserve some aspects that we can.” Even before she could give him an eyebrow, he slowed her, “I know, I know. I’m mostly just a figurehead, but I do the best I can. And, Commander Brock is one of the better commanders for listening to the reports I give than any other commander I served.”
Amos turned, expecting her to follow. When she didn’t, he stutter-stepped and motioned back to her. “I’m assuming you don’t know where the mess all is?” Olivia nodded, still trying to take him all in. He was a bit of a whirlwind. She moved to follow, and he almost immediately started asking her questions. By the time they had reached the mess hall, he had covered how she felt in the full G they had on the ship, her origins in the Martian hierarchy of families before the fall of New Athens, and he was beginning to work on how long she had lived in the desert when Olivia spotted Private Hicks.
Seething quietly, she then noticed that before she and Amos had entered, Hicks had been headed to what now looked like an empty fruit bar. There was a lone peach, though it looked as if a few days of space travel did not do it well, and had been picked over. But now, it was the seemingly last one, at least for the days’ breakfast. Olivia hadn’t seen non-dehydrated fruit in a very long time. Even before the war had technically begun. Her mouth watered slightly, and she moved so that Hicks would have to back up to stay outside of the 20 ft radius.
With the sweetest, most innocent smile she could muster, she slowly grabbed the peach, turned it in her hand, then took a juicy bite of it. Some of the juice ran down her wrist and chin, and she licked it off, enjoying each drop. The peach tasted delicious, but the revenge and spite tasted even better. Amos took this in, and gave a laugh. It seemed that Olivia wasn’t the only one that Hicks picked on.
“You may want to tell your prisoner friend that even though you look big and bad, you won’t be able to protect her, science boy,” Hicks shot, hissing below the hearing range of most of the crew that was present. Amos looked embarrassed, but ushered Olivia to the kitchen-esc area to show her the options. After setting her up at the coffee machine, she was ecstatic. She hadn’t had coffee in years either.
Amos eventually found them a spot to sit once they had gathered their food, and put Olivia behind him against a wall. If you weren’t looking, you wouldn’t even notice she was there. Happily enjoying her breakfast, she asked if they also got lunch and dinner. Amos laughed, and nodded, but her question had prompted even more questions from him.
Olivia spooned some warm oatmeal-like slosh into her mouth, savoring the heated meal, topped with re-hydrated berries and large granules of brown sugar. As she washed it down with an equally sweet cup of coffee, something Amos was saying had stopped her. “…he’s never even let me bring an unsanctioned sample off a planet before, let alone a whole person.
“He?” she questioned for clarity.
“Commander Brock,” he clarified for her, though it seemed, based on his reaction, that it was a piece of information he had just said.
“He doesn’t capture people to bring back to Luna?” she asked, a bit confused.
“No,” Amos responded, “We’ve never had a non-earth human on this ship before,” he paused, “well, not a live one anyways.”
Olivia took another swig of her coffee, pondering that bit of information silently.
Amos, of course continued with as many questions as he could ask, while also pointing out the soldiers she had already ‘met’ and the ones she hadn’t. He also mentioned to her all of which got on relatively well with Private Hicks, seeming to be fully up to date on the events of the cave. To which, when Olivia went to question him on how he knew, he had barely let her finish her sentence before interrupting her with, “It’s a small ship and nothing exciting ever happens.”
They finished their breakfasts, Olivia filled a to-go cup of coffee as Amos waited for her. “Are you my protection today?” She tried ryely.
“Were you supposed to have protection today? The commander didn’t mention it in our crew briefing…” Amos spluttered out quickly.
“Oh, then where are we going?” she asked, surprised that she wasn’t assigned a tail in the form of a large non-combatant.
“I figured you’d like a shower and to get out of that suit?” he asked, knowing the answer. “I figured it would be best to shower after 0800, since most of this shift will shower before their breakfast/dinner shift. Because we’re all men, there isn’t exactly a reason to have separate bathrooms.” They reached a corridor that seemed a bit steamier than the others. Opening a hatch to the right of him, Amos motioned for her to wait and peeked his head in. After a moment, he turned back to Oliva and motioned him towards her.
When they entered, there were two shower stalls, both with a door. A machine to the right of the door seemed to both distribute new towels and clean used ones. Amos showed her the buttons to press to get a towel, as well as how the shower stall worked. “I’ll be outside the door, to keep watch,” he mentioned and didn’t even look twice at her.
“Amos?” she called out right before he opened the hatch.
“Yes?” he asked.
“You’re not like them, are you? You don’t seem to notice that I’m female. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind at all, but they all,” she motioned to the door, “seem to be put on high alert when I’m within a hundred yards.”
Amos stifled a laugh. “You’re right, I’m not like them. I was deemed to be a science officer, so I cannot contribute to the Earth population.” He was almost robotic in his response, but he didn’t seem to care. “Not dissimilar to Private Hicks as well as Lieutenant Brock, I was altered with ‘the Liquid’, but they removed my drive completely where controls were put on theirs. However, there aren’t any women in the armies of Earth. There is actually almost a shortage of women. Hence why your existence triggers them a bit.”
“Oh,” she said softly, and he walked out of the door.
The hot water limit flashed brightly at her as she entered the shower box. The water ration lasted much longer than she needed and she relished in the warmth of it, using it to the fullest. After washing her hair and body, she dried herself off, rebraided her hair after running her fingers through it, then wrapping herself in the towel, she stepped out of the shower box to find her suit gone. In its place was a dark maroon jumpsuit with the name LWSS Zenith on the patch over the pocket, sewn in a metallic silver. The name of the ship, she figured.
Climbing into it, she found it comfortable, if a little baggy on her frame. But it was much easier and lighter than the suit she had worn in the desert. And much cleaner, she thought to herself as she returned the towel and left the room. Amos was waiting as promised, as was Commander Brock, not as promised.
The slow, methodical exhale that left Charles’ lips cemented a decision in his mind. He had returned to his cabin with a look of dejection on his face, disappointed that his efforts towards Olivia’s wellbeing were rejected outright. Then the epiphone hit him like a crate of mealbars. His job was not to market Earth’s intentions, as beneficial as they were to the blind convictions of his newly acquired refugee. It would also do him no good to indulge in quiet longings and curiosities. He would dismiss the novelty of a woman on his ship, and return to the role of a dispassionate, stoic commander.
And so, he threw himself into his work. Communications were meticulously coordinated with the attention of an eager cadet. Strings were tightened in terms of schedules and deadlines, much to the grumblings of the soldiers under his command. The i’s and t’s of daily ship life were dotted and crossed. Charles was determined that the clockwork harmony of his squad would not be contaminated by the grudgings of a newly introduced captive. His team would persevere. Charles’ flat-faced observance of the peach incident proved a silent testament towards that goal.
Private Hicks, eager (or perhaps desperate) to earn back Commander Brock’s good graces, reasserted his roles in spite of his demotion. Charles held back a sigh as his former Corporal requested a private meeting in his cabin.
“Ay sir,” Hicks began quietly as he stood at attention before his superior, “As the squadron’s elected representative, our concerns have revolved around how cooperative the captive girl will be during our day-to-day duties. Obviously I’m not an appropriate candidate, but perhaps we should assign someone to supervise her? To make sure she keeps out of trouble?”
Charles thought for a moment on the matter. “The last thing we need to do is give our guest more reasons to become disruptive or rebellious. Let’s leave her be for now.”
“Is that really the wisest course of action?” Hicks asked with a bit of forced concern. “What about the potential for sabotage or God knows what else?”
Another pause for consideration filled the space between Hicks and his Commander. “I have the feeling things will sort themselves out. I’ve whipped you boys into shape and sharpened your guard. We’ll leave things as they lay without rocking the boat.”
And with that, Hicks was dismissed from the captain’s cabin. Not long afterward, while Charles was busying himself with some paperwork, a chime at his cabin door prompted another meeting.
“Amos?” Charles remarked with soft surprise while still focused on the busywork before him. “Fancy seeing you here for a one-on-one. How may I help you, soldier?”
“Well, sir,” he began almost hesitantly, “it’s about our new guest. The girl.” Amos waited for an interjection from Charles which didn’t come. “After some consideration, I realized she is a promising specimen to further some of my analyses. I was hoping for your permission to introduce and acquaint myself with her towards some interactive research?”
Charles absorbed Amos’ request without reaction, still thumbing through papers. “Well,” Charles said after a time, “if she’s able to take to anyone on this ship, it’d probably be you.” He took a moment to look up towards Amos. “Permission granted. Just do me a favor and, ah… keep a close eye on her while you’re at it?”
Amos nodded slowly and smiled. “I appreciate your generosity, Commander.” An exit from the cabin soon followed.
The idea crossed Charles’ mind that treating Olivia as a crewmember might assuage her intimidation. He arranged for a telewatch to be issued and configured for Olivia’s personal use. The bed slab was also removed to make room for a mattressed cot, still not to standards with what the Commander’s cabin offered but a major upgrade nonetheless.
Charles waited patiently with Amos for Olivia to finish her shower, then greeted her at her cell with his arms folded formally behind his back. “Hopefully you’re a little more at ease now,” Charles remarked with a tone that conceded the probability of otherwise. “I’ve supplied you with a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, comparatively speaking. Hopefully it’s to your liking. Also, your telewatch is pre-configured for your bioprint activation.” There was no implied obligation for Olivia to wear it, though their emphasis by Charles couldn’t be ignored.
He turned to leave Amos and Olivia to their next activity, but not without one last reminder. “There’s an all-hands meeting at 1430,” Charles remarked. “I’d love to see you there.”
Olivia, surprised to see the commander, quickly zipped up the front of her jumpsuit a little higher, not wanting to start anything with him or any of the other soldiers. She also found herself not only taking, but putting on, the telewatch he handed her. It’s just a sign of good will, she told herself, Its the right thing to do. Looking down at the watch, she pondered for a minute, thinking back to what Amos had said in the mess hall about the Commander not ever having picked up a Martian, or really anyone that wasn’t crew, before.
Both the Commander and Amos were turning to walk away, and with a deep inhale, Olivia reached out and put her small hand on Charles’ arm. “Um,” she started awkwardly, “It’s been quite a few years since I’ve had new tech. Would you..” she paused, looking into his eyes for a second, “Would you mind helping me learn it?”
Charles would hand Kelyn a chilled bottled water along with his laptop after fetching it from his desk. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d remark regarding Kelyn’s condolences, though the tone in his voice suggested his loss still weighed significantly in his mind. After a quick adjustment to the thermostat, C
Charles fought hard to hide his surprise at Olivia’s suggestion. She may have spotted it fleeting his eyes before he quickly engaged the matter at hand with the fluidity of a seasoned Commander.
“Well then,” Charles explained while gently holding Olivia’s wrist upon his palm. “First the bioprint scan needs to be initialized. This will allow the telewatch to be proprietized to your unique electronic wavelengths.” A quick navigation on the small screen would send a soft, brief pulse through Olivia’s forearm. “Don’t worry, it’s temporary,” he explained hastily, as if to try and quell any complaints before they arose.
“Now that we’ve completed that,” Charles said while releasing Olivia’s wrist and deferring to Amos, “you can seat yourself at a terminal and download the mainframe software. That will sync you with alerts, briefings and informational archives regarding the ship and its occupants.” An unintentional glance at Olivia’s right eyebrow revealed a small scar running just underneath it. It added a little character to the elegance of Olivia’s face, and the revelation somehow seemed a bit too intimate compared to their exchanges thus far. Charles pulled his eyes away perhaps a little too abruptly.
“See you at 1430,” Charles said while clearing his throat, and turned towards his cabin.
Feeling the warmth from his hand and then the pulse of the watch made her a little unsure of her idea, as she looked down at the watch. But then, as the commander nearly scampered away, Olivia looked to Amos with a questioning face. Once Charles had marched down the corridor quickly, Amos said softly, “They’ll all be a little sensitive to you, you’ll have to keep that in mind. They won’t act as, I imagine, normal,” he made air quotes around the word, “human men would. Or at least the ones you’re used to.”
Olivia gave a sigh and shrugged as they continued back to her room. “Lets get you set up with the updates, and then I will leave you for a bit, then come get you for lunch before the meeting, say around 1300.” As they began to enter her cell/room, he asked, “May I join you?” She nodded, glad and surprised that he had asked. He left the door in the open position and sat her down close to the speaker she had heard earlier in the day.
The room, however, was now filled with creature comforts. Olivia was even surprised to find a pair of grav-boots in her size next to the bed. “Oh wow, these are brand new. These will be if we ever need to cut the gravity in the ship. It doesn’t happen unless we need to make a quick maneuver, which,” seeing her face, he clarified quickly, “will not likely happen in this flight. However, if it does, the boots will sense the gravity and activate the magnets in the soles so you’ll stay attached to the floor, wherever it may be.” After a few tricks and shortcuts on both the boots and watch, Amos left her and shut the door, with the promise of also bringing her a book reader.
She took the grav-boots off again, and curled up in the blankets and pillows on her bed while the tele-watch updated. Olivia felt lavish at this point, technology, three meals a day, books, coffee. With a sigh, and despite the caffeine, found herself drifting back to sleep. Sleepily, she noticed that the blankets and pillows that she had previously commandeered from the commander were still present and vaguely smelled of him. Before she could decide how she felt about it though, she was asleep.
True to his word, Amos came to get her at 1300, with a swift knock at her door. Groggily getting up, she slid into the grav-boots, clicked them into the locked position, and opened the door. “Ready?” he asked in a friendly tone, and they went to the mess hall. When she returned to what seemed to have become their seats, though the two across from them stayed empty, Amos joked that Olivia was definitely gain some much needed weight if she kept eating the way she had.
She looked down at the mountain of food on her plate and jokingly said, “I don’t know what you are talking about, dear.”
As they wrapped up lunch without an incident from ‘Hicks and dicks’, as Amos referred to them, they gathered their plates to put in the recycler and headed towards the meeting, right on time.
There was a loose gathering of soldiers at the forum area a few minutes before the scheduled meeting, chatting and chuckling and quietly watching. Upon Commander Brock’s emergence from his cabin, the group squared their shoulders and fell silent as he took his place at the head of the group with a paper printout in his hands.
“At ease,” Charles would declare after a silent scan of the group for attendance. A soft, collective shuffle of muscles relaxing within their fatigues was heard as he turned his attention to the printout.
“Gonna try and keep things short and sweet today…” Charles casually hunted for his first bullet point before turning his eyes up to the group. “You’ll be happy to know that Pilot Ramirez and I have quantified a shortcut with the podship’s navigational instruments, shaving our trip time by almost two days.” A spattering of applause rose to meet the Commander’s congratulations. “We’ll be shifting those hours to complement your leave upon arrival at Luna. Good job, gang. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned it.”
The Commander shifted to another bullet point. “Also, you’ll love this…” The sarcasm in Charles’ voice was evident. “Ship inventory is happening next week due to a shift in scheduling. I was hoping we could avoid it by the skin of our teeth with our original flight plan and pass it off to someone else, but it looks like the brass are anxious to have our fleets in tip-top shape for an upcoming advance operation. Sorry, gang.” The groans and sighs from the soldiers were heard for a few moments, before ceding themselves to the next point.
Charles lifted his eyes to find a particular soldier. “Private Anderson, you’ve really kicked ass with your calibration duties and meeting HQ’s deadlines. So sleep in good and long tomorrow, because I’m naming you Soldier of the Week.” Anderson smiled at his congratulatory applause, though one or two envious eyes leered at him.
“Also, one final treat for you guys…” The tone in Commander Brock’s voice was ungaugeable. “There’s been a piecemeal upgrade… update?… of Earth’s information archives and memory servers. Seems boring, I know, but in a day or two the entertainment archive will be updated with…” Charles looked down at his paper for the detail. “Eleven hundred thousand tetrabytes of archive material? Accessible by anyone with a Class C clearance, which is of course you guys. So enjoy all the books and music and movies you can handle across two millenia.” The soldiers stood wide-eyed and incredulous before loudly clapping their jubilation.
“Save your thanks for the guys back home, I had nothing to do with that one. I’m just the messenger.” Charles smiled and planted his hands upon his hips. “All right. Open forum. Questions? Comments?”
Olivia stood there silently, arms crossed and hip cocked, slightly unenthused with the proceeding. It wasn’t but a few moments after the commander had released the soldiers from the meeting that the lights of the LWSS Zenith turned red and the aforementioned Pilot Ramirez’s voice came over the speaker system and flashed on her tele-watch, “Battle stations, soldiers”. Suddenly, everyone was moving and the commander was barking orders. Olivia stood still, slightly bewildered at the whole notion of Earth soldiers being attacked in space. By who? she wondered just as the ship seemed to rock viciously to the right, as if hit.
It wasn’t a moment after that when they all began to float upwards. The clicks of grav-boots activated all around, and the magnetics kicked in and sucked them back to the floor. However, Olivia all of a sudden also noticed she couldn’t breathe. She looked around for the commander or Amos frantically, grasping at her throat. She knew these modified men wouldn’t even blink at the loss of air, but she was already beginning to see spots in her vision. Not seeing the commander or Amos, her chest seemed to cave inwards, attempting to suck any oxygen out of the air, but finding none. The life support systems had been shot out. She felt her boots disconnect from the floor and her body floated upwards. She was then rushed to a place she hadn’t been on the ship before.
Looking up, her savior, of course, was Commander Brock, and he had her easily held in his arms. She wrapped her own arm around his neck to steady herself, but soon found she was passing out. As she closed her eyes, Oliva found a suit mask pressed on her face, and the air returning. She was also strapped into a chair with a harness, and looking out a window of the ship when she fully came to. Taking a deep breath, she looked around for the commander, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Aye, fuckers, leave my girl Z alone!” she heard hissed in the earpiece. She assumed it was Ramirez, as not long after that the ship shook again, but in a way she figured was them firing, rather than being fired upon.
Charles’ hand was strategically placed behind the fold-out laptop screen as Kelyn prepared herself to watch the video. He was awkwardly situated as his torso leaned towards Kelyn in his seated position, with his knee on the couch as his eyes stared resolutely towards the wall over the top of her head.
The blaring alarm set in motion the trained reflexes of a veteran Earthen Commander. First came the bellowing of orders, though they weren’t really necessary; each soldier quickly took their place without hesitation upon hearing Ramirez’s intercom alert. Charles barely had taken his seat in his Commander’s chair before a stripe of orange lights lit within the walls of the podship… “Direct hit,” the Commander shouted to his soldiers as they began assembling their counteroffensive. Suddenly the Zenith tipped a bit to its side, and the air seeped from the room, tightening Charles’ lungs without sapping his energy. “Liquid, don’t fail me now,” he thought to himself while pressing commands into his console as he focused his eyes upon the large viewport before him.
“Where are you, you son of a bitch?” The empty void of space blanketed the viewport screen, though the hum of something could be heard within striking distance. Private Thompson, the weapons officer, would periodically break the silence with terse reports … “Coordinate threat scan pending… shields elevated to 70%… hull damage 18%. Auxiliary power on standby for supplementary allocation.”
The second hit came, and orange glow of rings shifts turned to yellow. “God dammit, where’s my return fire?? Where the fuck is this thing?!” Commander Brock’s impatient barks to his soldiers preceded what was meant to be a cursory glance to his right, where he saw Olivia desperately choking for air. His eyes widened at the critical situation before him. She was dying right before his eyes.
“Hicks! Take command!” Charles barked his order while he unstrapped himself from his seat and rushed towards Olivia. She collapsed right into his arms before he carried her towards sick bay, still gasping wet sickly sounds. Before long a mask was affixed around her face, feeding her live-saving oxygen as Olivia was strapped to a medical chair to keep her grounded amidst the lack of gravity.
A glance through the sickbay window would finally reveal the threat. A Martian Class B Destroyer, most likely piloted by insurgents, had stalked Zenith’s pulsetrail and made a brazen move. Olivia would hear soldiers communicating loudly in the out-of-sight battle station before seeing bright bursts of yellow find their mark… finally, return fire. A few tense moments would pass before a victory cheer was heard. The threat, it seemed, was warded off.
A few more minutes of discussion was heard, possibly a debriefing and supplementary orders. Then, Olivia would hear footsteps down the hall towards her position. “Hey, you look okay,” Charles said with a slight smile and folded arms, leaning against the bay doorframe. “If you’re going to be on this ship, we’ll need to issue you an oxygen feed for your helmet. That was a little too close for comfort, if you ask me.”
“Is it safe now?” she asked, still slightly traumatized. The voice was fed through the mask she still wore. At his nod though, she removed it and tentatively took a breath in. Her hair still floated upwards, as did she once she unlocked herself from the chair. Knocking the heels of her boots together, she was sucked down to the floor immediately. “I see the gravity isn’t back up yet, though,” she remarked softly.
“Not yet,” Charles conceded, though the soft wave of smile never left his face. “Pulse systems take priority. Zenith took a bit of damage, nothing serious. I’d be surprised if we weren’t back at 95% operations in six hours.” He allowed himself a quiet watch of Olivia, careful not to let his eyes overstay their welcome. “We should probably get you in a decompression chamber before our pulse engines are back at full strength. Don’t want to run the risk of a collapsed lung, as low as the chance might be.”
“I’m really starting to feel like a damsel in distress more than I’d like,” Olivia stated with a laugh, but continued, “I can fix that,” ignoring the commentary about a potential collapsed lung. “I did a lot of work on the Martian life support systems before everything,” she gestured with a shrug of her hands, “ya know. My mother and father did not approve though.”
Charles’ eyes remained affixed on Olivia, quietly mulling her offer. “You’re saying you’d like to help with getting our gravity back online?” he asked for clarification. He pursed his lips and thought a moment before continuing. “I mean, I certainly don’t mind, but I’d certainly like to get our pulse engines straightened out first. Can you wait a bit before reporting to Amos for repair duty?”
“I mean, unless you’d like to be on the float until we get to Luna?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “I also don’t need help from Amos to fix it, just give me some tools and point me in the right direction.” She stood now with her hands on her hips, hair lifted in its tight braid behind her, and found herself about a foot shorter than the commander. Still, not phased by the large man, she added, “I’m sure its not going to be the same as Martian tech, but it can’t be entirely different.” Olivia hooked the face mask to her utility belt that was woven through the jumpsuit, not wanting to let it leave her sight.
“Be my guest,” Charles said with a soft nod. “The gravitron engine array is located in the rear of the cockpit. Ask Ramirez where it is exactly, he should be able to point it out.” Charles turned to lead into the hallway but added one more comment: “If anyone fusses or give you guff, come straight to me. I’ll straighten them out.”
“Commander?” she asked, this time barely a whisper. “I’m assuming that was a Martian craft? And it no longer exists?” With each question, she seemed to speak softer and get a bit smaller.
Charles stopped in his tracks before turning to face Olivia, as a Commander would face someone under his command. “We fought it off once we got our act together. But it did make an escape. Frankly, a ship of that size has no business picking fights with this class of Podship. Perhaps it was a scout or probe trying to rattle us, or keep us busy while calculating our destination point. In either case, we’ll be at high alert until we reach Luna.”
“I’m assuming you reported at least part of my existence to your command, and there are likely moles or info grabbers out there for what is left of the Martians,” with a big inhale and exhale she quickly said, “So there likely will be more attempts, specifically attempts to board. I asked Amos not to say anything, because I didn’t think it would actually be a problem.” Absently, she looked down and was fiddling with her fingers.
He listened with a fold of his arms and a slight tilt of his head. “Yes, standard protocol is to report all passengers on our database flight plan before departure between destination points. As for not saying anything…” A narrowing of the Comamnder’s eyes was quickly supplanted by the desire to maintain Olivia’s stride towards cooperation. Charles took a breath and looked down to his own hands with a smile. “Both you and Amos are forgiven if you promise to communicate all concerns in good faith from now on. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” she said quickly and continued, “But I don’t think you understand. While Mars wasn’t a monarchy by any means, the best way I can explain it is, I was essentially like the Duke of Mars’ daughter. Apparently they know, or suspect, I’m here and they’re not just going to let me go to Luna.” Absently, she chewed at her lip, unsure of what else she could say. Someone passed behind the commander quickly in the corridor. “Maybe this a conversation to have without the door open?” she tried.
Charles flapped his lips with an exhale at the revelation. He looked towards the bustle lingering behind them and motioned towards the opposite end of the ship. “Are you comfortable in my cabin? For further discussion and clarification?”
Olivia looked like a small child who was in trouble at school, but she nodded and followed him to his quarters. As soon as the door slid shut behind them, she started, “My parents had the capability and funds to flee. Its why I was able to survive for so long. And, I told you not to take me,” she added even faster at the end.
Charles would sit down at his desk after shutting the door behind them. Not reacting to Olivia’s almost-paniced explanation, he offered with an extension of his hand for her to sit as well. “Relax. Take a breath. Start again when you’re ready. This ship, as well as my squad and myself are prepared to deal with hiccups and unexpected complications. That’s part of our job as soldiers. And it seems…” Charles took a breath before continuing, “you’re willing to help us along?”
She sat as he motioned for her to do so, pulling her legs against herself tightly, as if trying to disappear entirely. But at his question, she hesitated greatly. She fiddled with her hair, looking at the tail of her braid as if it was the most interesting thing in the galaxy. After an extraordinary long pause she said, “I wouldn’t want to have anything happen to you guys, but…” Olivia paused again, but started back up, on what seemed like a tangent. “I was engaged to the Prime Minister’s son, Bryson. It had been announced, and was of course arranged, but when everything fell… Well, we didn’t know what happened and who was still alive. But Amos told me that, essentially, I am the next in line,” another pause, “And would be” she cut herself off, “are my people.”
Charles drummed his fingers lightly on his desk before leaning back in his chair, taking in Olivia’s explanation. He seated his hands upon his stomach and silently gazed her over. It seemed that a royal figure of what was left of the Martian empire now sat before him. How ironic that she had living on the edge for so long, perhaps a testament to the persistence of the red planet’s inhabitants, despite their subjugation…
“We’ll have to renavigate our course,” Charles finally proclaimed. “That probe likely got a fix on our trajectory and is informing every attack ship within striking distance. We’ll take a bit longer to get to Luna, but we’ll avoid more conflicts with clever maneuvers.” He sighed and sat up in his chair. “There goes my squad’s extra leave time.”
“So you’re not just going to put me in the air lock out into space?” She asked, almost incredulous.
Charles stifled a chuckle, despite the seriousness of their discussion. “Of course not. You’re still an asset to this ship, despite your monkey wrench of a revelation. But,” the Commander said while sitting up and straightening his shoulders, “I hope I can assume your cooperation henceforth? And the benefit of your trust?”
She hesitated again, but eventually nodded, “Yes, I suppose so. But I would keep my name off any logs, unless you want direct orders to kill me from your government.” She rose from the chair, kicking her heels together to activate the boots once again.
Walking towards the door, she turned back. “Do you still want me to work on the gravity then?” She asked, unsure.
“Have at it,” Charles said with a reassuring salute. “And your civilian status makes it unnecessary for you to call me ‘Commander’ or ‘Sir’.” He pulled a slight smile upon his face. “You can call me Charles. Or Mr. Brock. Whichever you prefer.”
With a curt nod, she pushed the button to open the door and walked through it, seemingly already thinking about the repairs that needed to be done. Olivia made her way to the cockpit, introduced herself to Pilot Ramirez and asked about the gravitron engine’s location. With a rye smile, the pilot rose and took a glance at her, “I see why there’s quite a fuss about you, miss. I don’t mean no disrespect, I’m a married man. But now I understand why we’re taking fire and everything is in a bit of a tailspin.” He said all this in an almost old-western accent as he pushed a few buttons to unlock the correct panels to be opened.
Olivia, caught between embarrassment and surprise, just felt a blush rise to her cheeks, but stayed quiet. After a few more moments and button pushes, the medium sized engine was revealed. “The tools you’ll likely be needin’ are over there, miss,” he said, pointing to a toolbox laid into the matrix of the cockpit. “Um, thanks,” she said softly, and opened the drawers, getting to work.
About an hour later, with a click and a sudden woosh, she felt the gravity pushing down on her again. Her hair swung back against her back and her boots deactivated. While parts of her face were smeared with grease from her hands, she was pretty happy with herself. “Not too bad for a duster girl,” Ramirez added with another grin as she cleaned up the space.
“See you later, I guess?” she said, as the door to leave the cockpit slid open for her. Looking at her watch, she sent a request to the commander, recording it with the hologram-video system. “…the right button. Oh! Hi, Comman-Charles. I finished the gravity, as I’m sure you can tell. Is there anything else I should try fiddling with before dinner?”
Clicking the message off and sending it, she started back to her quarters for the time being.
Though his boots kept him secured to the floor of the otherwise free-floating interior of Zenith, Charles felt the exact moment when the gravity was reactivated across the ship. There was a sharp pain across his body as his organs resettled themselves which quickly passed, and the strange airy feeling of flowing body hair was gone. Soon afterward, the chime on his telewatch registered a call. It was Olivia, delivering the news of a successful repair.
“You’ve done your duty for the day. Myself and the squad owes you a great thanks for your help. Take the rest of the evening off and enjoy yourself.” With that, the Zenith as a whole seemed to pull back towards a pre-attack normalcy. Charles wasn’t looking forward to telling his troops about the evasive trajectory correction that will put them behind schedule, but that could wait until the morning briefing. His squad would adapt and overcome despite their disappointment.
The smell of hot food filled Zenith around 1700, coming from the ship’s cafeteria. Automated food processors were delivering the usual nutrient-dense bowls of what seemed like porridge, as well as an alternative of nanotechnologically-produced chicken breasts and sides. A small crowd hovered around the trays of nano-chicken even before the squad was officially relieved for evening chow, and most of it was quickly claimed to soldier’s trays before Charles even found his way to the cafeteria. He quietly claimed a boring bowl of the military mush as well as a spoon and sat at an empty table which positioned himself to quietly view the entirety of his staff.
Upon receiving clearance to return to her quarters, Olivia made her way there, starting to really reckon with the information that the day had brought. She really did not expect there to be a big enough rebel force to attack a Earther ship, only a few weeks out from Luna no less. And if they were indeed trying to save her, why would they have shot the life systems out first? Perhaps a shot gone wrong? she wondered to herself as she accessed the room and curled up into its softness again. She truly had missed this level of softness since the war, but it obviously was not exactly up to her pre-war standards.
Nonetheless, Olivia relaxed back with Amos’ borrowed reader and browsed through the multitude of entertainment that was available to him. Once she had started into a book she hadn’t heard of before, it wasn’t long until she was lost into its electronic pages.
A knock on the door made her jump, and she checked the time. “Oh, shit,” she said, jumping to her feet. She answered the door to a grinning Amos. “Did you want me to bring dinner to your quarters, madam?” he asked in a faux old-English accent.
“Ha ha,” she countered mirthlessly and continued, “But don’t say things like that!” Olivia then punched his arm and they continued into the mess hall. Beginning to salivate, Amos laughed at her, then whispered in her ear jovially, “Are we going to have to roll you out of this ship when we get to Luna, princess?”
Amos received another punch, but this one was a bit harder. He laughed at her and separated to grab his food. They reconvened at the table, Olivia still hidden behind him a bit, and she started in about how she had to tell Charles about the family history, how she engaged the gravity so quickly, and her interaction with Ramirez.
“Where is he?” she asked, curious.
“Oh, he gets first pick and then brings it to the bridge,” Amos answered breezily, “Being the pilot does have its perks.”
She sat as he motioned for her to do so, pulling her legs against herself tightly, as if trying to disappear entirely. But at his question, she hesitated greatly. She fiddled with her hair, looking at the tail of her braid as if it was the most interesting thing in the galaxy. After an extraordinary long pause she said, “I wouldn’t
The military mush was as tasteless as it was cold. Despite this, Charles savored every bite, chewing slowly while observing from afar. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits, even Olivia; Charles mulled over ways to deliver the news of a detour trajectory to his squad without overly souring the morale. Lost in thought, he felt a silent buzz from his telewatch and looked to see an incoming message Ramirez. Soon it displayed on the screen. “Found something, sir. Should probably keep discreet for now. Discuss?” With that, Charles lifted himself calmly from his seat, disposed of his mush and made his way to the cockpit.
Ramirez waited for his Commander while seated in his pilot’s chair, observing an enlarged scan upon a nearby telescreen. A plate of food sat upon a touchpad, barely touched.
“So what is it, Ramirez?” Charles inquired upon arrival. He instinctively steered his attention to the amplification screen, when a sea of space blackness was broken by a small, indeterminate gray object.
“That right there, sir,” Ramirez said in confirmation with Charles’ intuitive eyes. “About twenty clicks away. Class D Assault Ship. Dangerous if manned and headed for intercept, but…” He pointed to a smaller readout screen displaying numerical values and coded terminologies. “It looks like it’s abandoned and stalled out there. Readings don’t detect any latent firepower or biological entities, alive or dead.”
“Hmm.” Charles took his forefinger and placed it upon his chin. “That’s odd. Has it sustained any damage?”
“Not from what I can tell. It’s just floating in place, as if it was spontaneously decommissioned with all weaponry jettisoned. A ghost ship.” Ramirez shrugged, then pulled a smile. “Creepy huh?”
“Yes indeed… creepy.” Charles pulled his arm down to his hip and sighed. “I suppose I should beat HQ to the punch and launch an investigation?”
“No word from Central Command yet,” Ramirez said. “But yeah, I’m guessing they’re gonna want that. But I gotta tell ya… I don’t have the greatest feeling about this.”
“Me either,” Charles agreed. “Raise the ship’s threat level to Red Alert, Standby. We’re heading over.”
Amos and Olivia didn’t notice the commander leave the mess hall. While Olivia’s view was obstructed and her attention mostly towards the warm food, Amos knew it was not abnormal for any part of the crew to dine early and leave or come in late. They were a smaller crew for the size ship they had.
About ten minutes after Charles had left, the red alert sounded again, this time in standby. However, nearly all of the crew ate whatever bite was left on their forks and headed to the recycler to dump the remainder of their trays, then head to their stations.
Amos did the same, encouraging Olivia to do so as well. As soon as the lights flipped to red though, so did her stomach. “Send a message to the commander for your orders,” Amos told her quickly, moving out of the mess hall and to his station. “You have your helmet?” He asked as she held it up to show him. “Alright, keep breathing this time, princess,” he said and left her.
“Com-Charles,” she corrected faster this time “Where are you? Where should I be? I have the helmet.” She asked with a little more anxiety in her voice than she liked as she clicked and unclicked the latch of the helmet to her belt. Surely they wouldn’t try again so quickly, she thought to herself as she awaited his reply.
A few moments would pass before Charles provided a response to Olivia’s inquiry. “I’m in the cockpit. There’s been a strange discovery that merits an investigation. No imminent threat, but…” Charles stopped himself and proceed to his instructions. “There’s an unassigned turret station over near the loading bay. Have Amos program your authorization and await further orders.” A pause, then, “I’m trusting you. Over and out.”
Rings of bright red circled the interior of Zenith as the squad readied themselves at their stations. Charles had zipped himself into a specialized pressure suit in preparation for their approach of the ghost ship. Soon, the rings of red spun around as proximity alerts blared within the ship. “INCOMING VESSEL ALERT. STATIONARY, UNMANNED. ALERT.” Ramirez slowed Zenith’s momentum until it slid into a standstill. Commander Brock waited within a decompression chamber that would open itself to the vacuum of space upon his command.
FInally, with the ghost vessel within leaping distance, Charles gave the command with a hand gesture through the chamber’s window. Suddenly, he was hurled towards the ship until he clanged against its hull, rolling a bit before clasping his hand upon a latch. “Whew. Rough landing, but I made it,” Charles radioed in through Zenith’s intercom. “Slowly making my way to an entry hatch. Communication will resume when I’m inside. Stand by for further reports.”
Upon receiving her orders from Charles, she reached out to Amos via tele-watch and told him what she was to do. With a grin, he told her where to find the gun and that he would meet her there.
“Are you ready to be armed and dangerous, princess?” Amos asked jovially.
“You’re really running that joke out, you know,” she countered and sat in the seat of the machine. After a quick tutorial, Amos made his way back to his station and left Olivia.
Lost in her thoughts, she wondered if she would actually be able to fire the gun in front of her, at her own people. Charles’ voice broke through her thoughts though, reporting that he had made it to the ship. Unfortunately, Olivia did not know much about spaceship warfare, even in her position pre-war, but something about this situation felt very off to her.
In the black coldness of space, no one can hear you work. And Commander Brock was working against the hull of the ghost ship that floated ominously near the cautiously parked Zenith. He climbed slowly across its hull to the bay door and steadied his position against the void that pulled incessantly against his unyielding boot and hand gravitators. With a strategically placed palm upon the sealed entryway, he administered a pulse burst that yanked it forward from its hinges. Brock’s hand managed to wedge itself behind the edge of the door and pull it fully free with an ample yank. It wobbled off into the blackness behind him as he floated slowly into the bay’s interior.
It was the expected sight within, at first. A large workbay presented itself with mechanized arms folded and deactivated against the wall. Tools began to float upward and outward as the vacuum of space rushed in. Commander Brock’s boots clamped themselves to the grated floor, and he further braced himself with an arm upon a metal post as he further scanned the bay. The absence of weapons or weaponry components befuddled him; it was an assault ship he was exploring, after all. Finally, the entry door leading into the heart of the ship was found. An identification card scanner stood its ground for less than a minute before Charles implemented a pulse override that opened the door, revealing more blackness within.
The door was shut behind him as Commander Brock’s boots embraced the floor once more. His eyes adjusted to the swallowing shadows, as did his suit’s sensors; his visor drew a schematic of the hallways with a sonar pulse array that identified any potential dangers. Charles was about to take his first step forward before a transmission broke the stark silence against his ears.
“Sir?” Hicks asked through the audiofeed’s crackle. “We’re tracking your progress and continuing to monitor the ship. “If you’d like to withdraw, Amos and I can proceed from here.”
Charles thought for a brief moment before his response. “As Commander, I have sole access to port authorization codes if we find it necessary to park this thing on Earthen soil. So I believe the best course of action is if I proceed. Remain on standby with a battlesuit; I’ll request reinforcements once I’ve secured the bridge. Over and out.”
With that, Commander Brock continued his exploration of the ghost ship’s interior. He cautiously navigated corridors and performed bioscans, rounding each corner with his palm’s pulse rifle at the ready. Readings indicated no organic presence, which was a perplexing anomaly. It seemed like the ship was scrubbed clean before desertion, or it was somehow steered remotely until it seemingly ran out of fuel or power. The mystery seemed to deepen with each secured hallway and cabin.
Finally, Commander Brock found himself at the bridge after having swept the rest of the ship’s interior. The Captain’s chair sat elevated behind five others that offered their own control panel and monitor screen, evenly distributed across a semicircle. The large curl of viewport also wrapped around the entire bridge, offering slivers of light from distant stars that traced along the contours of seats and buttons. Gray strips of sheen also pulled along metallic surfaces as Charles made his rounds, performing the last of his scans.
Once finished, Charles plopped himself upon the Captain’s chair, with a soft thud that echoed across the bridge, as if to announce the Commander’s hard-earned luxury to deaf ears. He turned his attention to the control panel and worked on override procedures. Initially stonewalled, his computer systems discovered a bypass, and the ship’s lights and engine hummed to life, much to Charles’ surprise. He sat completely still for a few moments, as if to hide from the movement-based vision of invisible eyes. Then, his attention pulled to the schematic readouts of his personal monitor.
“2% power reserves,” Charles stated aloud to himself. The ship’s renewed life wouldn’t last for long. Activating the transmitter in his helmet, he reestablished contact with the waiting Hicks. “Bring Amos along with his tools,” he requested while his eyes noticed a shift in the viewport’s focus point. The Zenith now displayed before him in all its glory, waiting and ready for further orders.
And then, half a click away in the distance, another ship manifested itself into existence… at first glance, a Class F Destroyer vessel. Charles found himself wondering how it was able to utilize classified cloaking technology before the horror of the situation fully set into his mind. His eyes widened with panic just as a message broadcasted into the ghost’s ship’s monitor feed.
“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THE LWSS ZENITH IS NOW TARGETED. HEAVY WEAPONS ARE LOCKED AND READY TO FIRE IF ESCAPE IS ATTEMPTED. PREPARE FOR IMMEDIATE BOARDING. CREW MEMBERS SHOULD SURRENDER OR BE DESTROYED.”
The commander’s updates did not bring her out of her thoughts, however the loud announcement screamed across her and the soldier’s comms did. Quickly, she heard quite a few curses that followed the alert. Olivia fumbled for her watch and connected instantly with Amos. “This is a drill, right?”
“I fear not, ma’am,” he answered quickly, sounding as if he was at least jogging, if not running.
“Stop calling me that,” she snapped and began to ask another question but Amos had already appeared in the doorway.
“With the Captain off ship, it makes Hicks acting-captain, and Lee his XO. Which is bad enough already,” he muttered as he ushered her out of the turret seat.
“XO?” she asked, as she struggled to keep up with his long legs.
“Executive Officer,” he stated blankly, “But we don’t have time for your questions right now, ma’am. We need to get you somewhere safer.”
Olivia started having flashbacks to the fall of New Athens over twenty five years ago. She couldn’t dwell on that though, now. She noticed they were headed back towards her quarters, but he opened the door before hers. Starting to question, he cut her off, “You won’t look like our prisoner if I put you in the other cell.”
Amos hesitated, grabbed her wrist for a moment, released it, and then bowed at the hips, “Your Excellency, stay safe.” The door slid shut then, the lock clicking and lighting red. Olivia banged on the door, though she knew it would be useless. “Amos!” she screamed, “This isn’t funny!”
Attempting to open her comm link, she found her tele-watch missing. “Fucker!” she hissed and started to pace. If this was indeed an attack, Amos wasn’t wrong, this was her best chance. She didn’t expect Hicks to come quietly though. Almost as if on queue, she heard the guns fire, just before the ship shook with the inertia of the shots. A few moments after that, an even larger shift of the ship caused her to trip and fall to her hands and knees. Cursing again, she moved to get up, but another crash hurled her head against the side of the metal bed platform.
Olivia’s head pounded, making her wonder if the sounds she started to hear were close range weapons or if it was just in her head. She got up slowly, but as she did, the gravity disappeared until her grav-boots sucked her down. At least there’s still air, she thought to herself as she identified that it was definitely close range weapons.
Chewing on her lip, her hair floating above her, Olivia moved to wipe the sweat off her brow, only to find the knock to her head had left her bleeding. Most of the firing had subsided outside the cell, she noticed. For a moment, she considered an Earther win but loss of Charles and/or Amos and shuddered at the thought of Hicks and his cronies in charge.
More firing brought her back to the present, the firing sounded right outside the door. Then, after a minute, the door slid open. In front of her was a fully suited and armed with what looked like a very large laser blaster. His suit looked like an Earther suit, but it was black. No, not black. Red so deep it was black upon first glance. Fresh blood red. Olivia shivered and froze as if she was a deer in the headlights.
“Prime Minister Draper?” the suit crackled. Olivia nodded almost imperceptibly. “Come with me, Your Excellency.”
There was that title again, she vaguely thought as she moved with the soldier. As she stepped out of the door, two other soldiers flanked her. Not five feet down the corridor, she saw Amos hovering above the floor, his eyes open. She stifled her gasp as the soldier that had first opened her door pushed his body aside. She shut her eyes tightly passed him, wanting to reach out. His body would have been slumped next to her door, likely attempting to protect her. But now, his suit was burnt against and into his skin in multiple locations where he had been hit.
Bile rose in her throat, and she attempted to not show any sadness as they passed more mangled bodies on their way out of the ship. Thompson, Hicks, and another she couldn’t remember the name of. Habron, maybe? she thought as the soldier in front of her slowed as they neared a smokey area of the ship. One of the soldiers behind her, a female voice, said softly, “Your mask, ma’am.”
Olivia looked surprised initially, but they couldn’t see that. She unhooked the latch from her utility belt affixed the mask to her face and started the oxygen flow. Looking back she gave a slight nod. The front soldier moved forward almost immediately, confirming that they were speaking to each other on an internal communication line.
They walked through the smoke and to what Olivia determined to be the spaceship equivalent of a tunnel and at the end, she found herself in a different ship. Unsurprised, they continued walking, until they were on the bridge of the much larger ship. Just in the bridge there were seven soldiers manning control panels and standing in front of monitors that Olivia didn’t understand. The soldiers led her towards a set of stairs that curved to an upper deck of the bridge.
On the deck, sat a large Captain’s chair, placed to overlook the bridge as a whole. “Captain Holden, we found her,” the first soldier reported through their suit. The man in the chair rose with a wide grin on his face.
“You can remove your mask, Prime Minister Draper,” Captain Holden said, motioning to Olivia. She did so, warily attaching it back to her belt, unsure of what she was about to face. Her braid had fallen out in the process of the battle, and now back in gravity, her hair fell messily around her.
The Captain, though Olivia didn’t think it possible, grinned wider as he said, “The general will be interested to see you.”
The assault unfolded quickly. Right before Commander Brock’s eyes, a transport craft deployed from the Destroyer vessel and latched itself to the side of the Zenith. Through the ghost ship’s viewport, he saw a bright cascade of sparks as soldiers were undoubtedly carving an entryway to the core of his ship. Hicks’ transmission feed detailed the horrors within for a few gut-wrenching moments.
“Sir! An EMP burst has drowned our instruments… we’re stranded! Soldiers are taking defensive positions… they’re coming in through the hull! Grenades incoming!”
Listening through his audiofeed, Charles heard a frenzy of pulsefires quickly that dwindled to sporadic gunshot pops…
…and then, silence. Charles was already on his way to the workbay door to exit the ghost ship the way he came in. His orders couldn’t help his squadron withstand an onslaught of gunfire, but his presence would steer the course of Zenith’s fate. As he approached the pressure-sealed door, Charles quietly cursed the recon coveralls he was wearing, which lacked in firepower compared to a full-fledged battlesuit. In his mind, however, he was ready to offset that disadvantage with sheer force of will.
…and then came another surprise. Commander Brock’s attempt to once more override the door’s locking mechanism was denied. The ghost ship had come to life, and now it seemed to be working against him. Subsequent attempts only served to reinforce the pressure seal which kept him from a desperate rescue of his squadron.
“Fuck!” Charles yelled to himself as he banged his hand against the door. “What the hell is going on!”
As if to answer, the lights across the resurrected ship brightened with a surge of power. The schematic readings across his visor’s sensors reported the impossible… 12%… 27%… 56%… 100%. The ship was now at full power.
“What the hell…” Charles turned and ran back to the bridge to try and determine the source of the insurgency. As the door opened to reveal the empty Captain’s chair, the viewport divulged another impossibility. The ship was not only moving… it was surging. Someone or something was controlling it remotely.
Charles stood in disbelief for a few moments as stars whizzed past him in the viewport’s blackness. His visor was already calculating the coordinates of the ship’s likely destination…
Mars, Charles soberly realized. I’m headed back to Mars.
The pulse rifles on his recon suit weren’t powerful enough to punch a hole through the ship. Charles was trapped as trapped could be, on a direct course to converge with someone or something that was expecting his arrival on the red planet.
Flight time was estimated at twenty-seven hours. I have at least that long to prepare myself, he thought to himself while turning to the bridge door. It refused to budge. The ship had turned against him once more.
Twenty-seven hours passed quickly. The ship ignored or rejected all attempts at coordinate overrides, forcing Charles to grudgingly accept his forthcoming destination. He was now sitting rigidly on the Captain’s chair, focused on the inevitable encounter that awaited him. The military-issued cyanide pill which sat in his personal medkit flashed across his mind for the briefest moment. No, he thought with a Commander’s resolve. I want to meet the asshole face-to-face who brought me back here. Then, if I must, I will go down in a blaze of glory.
The darkness of space gave way to an approaching dusty-red planet. Soon the redness enveloped the viewport of the ship, and the heat of burning atmosphere could be felt throughout the bridge. Wherever I’m going, Charles thought with gritted teeth, they’re sure as hell gonna regret bringing me there.
As if the ship was reading his mind, the viewport suddenly shut itself closed. “Fuck!” Charles yelled aloud with a resounding echo. He was now blind to what waited for him. It would only be a few moments until touchdown, and he felt the ship begin to activate its proximity gravitation system.
“It doesn’t matter what’s waiting for me out there,” Charles growled as he lifted from the Captain’s chair. “Bring it on.”
Finally, Charles sensed the ship had completed its landing and readied his palm’s pulse rifle, aimed at the bridge door. Moments passed while he stood absolutely still… then, the sudden sound of something scrambling outside broke the deafening silence. The door exploded forward and knocked squarely into Charles, collapsing him against the floor.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, and fired pulse rounds indiscriminately towards the bright orange doorway filled with flames. He heard heavy footsteps flood the bridge, and then a sharp sting against his arm… a tranquilizer projectile. Before he had time to seethe against his looming fate, the world went black.
Time passed. One eye opened, then two. Commander Brock reawakened to the world with the merciless embrace of a pounding aching. Thoughts seeped into his mind slowly… the realization that he was stripped of his recon suit was the first unwelcome dose of reality. He was now wearing fatigues that were one size too tight, tied to a chair and smothered in blackness.
The headache seemed to soak further into his body the more aware he became. The tranquilizer had done a number on every muscle and tendon. His hands were numb from the tight bindings around them, and patches of burned skin introduced themselves with pulses of pain.
Just as Charles was about to muster his first attempt at wriggling and writhing against his restraints, a door slid open a few yards away, scathing his eyes with bright light. He turned his face away as a few slow-moving footsteps made their way toward him before stopping curtly. The presence seemed to wait patiently as Charles’ eyes adjusted and reluctantly turned to greet what stood before him.
“Well hello there,” a female voice said in casual greeting. The brightness pulled away to reveal a fair-skinned woman with piercing cobalt blue eyes and fiery red locks that draped down to her shoulders. She stood about Olivia’s height, wearing what seemed to be an insurgent’s uniform, with something in her hand that would undoubtedly make its presence known soon enough.
“It’s nice to meet you, Commander Brock. Let’s get acquainted, shall we?”
Olivia was not on the bridge long before a flurry of activity came through a different door than the one she entered through. The door slid upwards to reveal a colorful team of what she immediately identified as old-Mars stylists. Within the span of a gulp, they were on her like a pack of manicured hyenas. She was stunned into a learned silence, it was as if she was back on Mars 20 years ago. Seven-year-old Olivia was screaming inside, but present day Olivia was still in shock by the bodies aboard the Zenith, and the quickness of which they had been taken.
As Earth had moved into a more militarized state as the Martian planet began to grow in their own power, it was often in the exact opposite way of Earth. Frivolity, choice, and self-expression sat at the middle of Martian culture. And now those culture vultures were coming for the Zenith space suit-wearing Olivia with grease under her fingernails.
She was whisked away to a different part of the ship, with so many people talking to her at once that she couldn’t keep track of it all. One of the women wore a bubblegum pink, skin tight full bodysuit with matching tu-tu. Another had a neon green and purple overcoat on that must have been two sizes too big. This was one part of Mars that she hadn’t missed. Often, when she was portrayed in the press as the Prime Minister’s son’s fiancee, it cited her for being boring. Now, Olivia feared she may not be able to stay herself for long, due to the title she had been forced into.
After being showered, most of her body hair was removed, and she was perfumed to such an extent that her head began to ache. She sat silently as her hair was trimmed and lightly curled, and make-up was applied to her face. But, when they were complete, she felt as if there was an entire layer on top of the skin on her face. Making a point to wipe most of the additions off once they had left, she nodded politely as they ‘revealed’ her new look and informed her when dinner would be.
Just as the group had flurried into her life, they flurried out of what she assumed to now be her quarters. There were lavish amenities, and a room much larger than the Commander’s quarters on the Zenith, let alone the captives’ quarters she had been in. She wiped most of the makeup off of her face, only to leave the eyemake-up, though significantly dulled. She messed her hair up a little, not finding the perfectly neat waves to be to her liking.
A mannequin of her size and stature stood in the corner, with a rust colored, floor length dress. It was strapless, but attached at the shoulders was what looked like a cape. It was gausey and caught the light easily, prisiming small rainbows about her. Is this supposed to be a veil? she questioned to herself, but noted it did not look as if it was supposed to go over her face.
She resigned, after some searching, that besides the robe she had been given after her shower, the dress was the only item of clothing in the room, Olivia donned it, finding it slightly too large for her still malnourished body. A few minutes later, a few maids knocked at her door to present her with shoes and jewelry. Olivia was overwhelmed by the entire process and unsure of where all of this wealth and extravagance had been afforded. Mars, at the end of the war just before Earth had finally broken the atmosphere, was a siege racked country. This level of abundance seemed impossible.
Noting the specific lack of usefulness of her shoes as she put them on, Olivia glared slightly at the maids who had presented them, without word. Once the maids deemed her complete through silent standards, they motioned her to follow. After a few minutes’ walk, Olivia was significantly lost, but she was brought to a grandiose room that had a twelve seater table in the middle of it. Once again, Olivia seemed completely unsure of how all of this could have been managed at all, lastly in space.
All of a sudden, a man appeared from the other side of the room, eyes smiling. He wore a bastardized version of the formal Martian Military dress, a sharp black suit and parade cap, with rust accents. “Olivia! My dear, how have you been?” Ian Fenwick asked her with a great hand gesture and slight bow.
And then, everything made sense.