Liquid Evolution – 02

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions

It almost felt as though a dream, though his tied hands were prevented from pinching that theory. There he was, strapped to a chair, with the most inadequate interrogator he could possibly lay eyes upon, at least at first glance. A healthy Brock could have likely broken free from his restraints and leveled the playing field straight way. As things stood, the tranquilizer’s effects still coursed through his veins, sapping the strength from his muscles.

Charles, widening his squinted eyes as the light relented its piercing assault, greeted the red-haired stranger with a pleasant demeanor that he knew wouldn’t sustain for long. “And what do I have the pleasure of calling you?” he asked with forced congeniality.

The red-haired stranger folded her arms and smiled. “Andrea,” she flatly declared before a look of consideration surfaced across her face. “Although, for our intents and purposes, and since I’m technically the master of your fate… I’m thinking ‘Master’ might be a more appropriate title. What do you think, soldier?”

Commander Brock couldn’t help the snort that forced his way through his nostrils. He sighed and pulled his eyes down to the cold concrete floor for a moment, then back up to lock them upon Andrea’s own gaze. “Fuck you,” was his decision of a response.

“Hmm.” The sound through Andrea’s closed lips was half disappointment, half contemplation. She then turned her attention to the device in her hand, which looked to be a remote of some kind. She admired it briefly as if never having seen it before, tracing her index finger along the contours of a button. Then came the inevitable press. 

Pain. Searing pain. Charles’ head bucked upwards as his eyes burned like hot coals. His gasp of surprise spilled quickly into a continuous groan of pain. It literally felt as though something was carving his brain from the inside. Andrea watched his response intently, shifting her shoulders in casual examination before breathing in to speak.

“Master… Master makes the pain go awaaaay,” Andrea declared in a cheerful, sing-songy voice. Charles continued to struggle, writhing desperately in his chair. She sighed and shrugged before turning the dial on her remote slightly higher. A bead of blood now trailed down from Commander Brock’s nostril. He couldn’t bear the pain any longer.

“MASTER!” he surrendered through a thick, throaty gasp. At once, the pain stopped, and Andrea’s smile widened.

“Theeeerrrre we go, good soldier,” she encouraged with a pat on Commander Brock’s head. “We’ll make a fine, obedient boy out of you yet.”

“Whuh… what the fuh…” Charles began to question as blood trickled across his top lip, but Andrea promptly shushed him.

“In a nutshell? You Earth heads were so willing and eager to have all kinds of crap installed within your bodies, never thinking how it might could be turned against you,” Andrea supplied as an explanation before shifting sharply from the matter. 

“But, more on that later, little soldier. We need to discuss the matter of Olivia.”

As if on cue, a series of telescreens lit up around the pair, giving dimension to the once completely dark room. It was a smallish room, with a tiled yellow floor and sewer grate near Brock’s feet… dried splatters of blood made it clear this was a designated room for past interrogations. On the telescreens, Charles would find images of his dead squadron… Amos on the floor with his eyes open and blood spilling from his wounds, as was Hicks and the others… all dead, with the boots of insurgents surrounding them.

“We need to know,” Andrea began, “who you bothered to radio about Olivia’s presence on your ship. She is an important dignitary after all, and you Earther boys almost gained a major upper hand on us. Did you know who she was upon capturing her?”

Charles took a moment to gather himself before responding. “I did not, and that’s the truth,” he stated slowly through gritted teeth.

“Hmm.” Andrea took his response quietly, waiting a moment before cranking the dial. 


“Ahhhh… there we go,” Andrea said with a satisfied smile. “But where’s my Master?”

“MASTER!” Again, the pain subsided on cue. Blood now leaked from the corner of Commander Brock’s left eye.

Andrea looked down to her remote in admiration, rotating it with her fingers. “Guess this guy is doing his job,” she mused aloud to no one in particular. Then, her attention refocused to the matter at hand.

“I have to leave you for a bit, little soldier, but I’ll be back soon for more questions.” Andrea turned to exit the way she came. But, before she pulled through the doorway, she stopped and reached into her pocket to pull out something small, holding it towards Charles against the light.

“Found this little guy in your medkit,” Andrea said through a laugh. “Cyanide pill. Go figure.” She then tossed it to the floor at Brock’s feet, watching it fall through the sewer grate.

“Before I’m completely done with you,” she asserted with cold determination, “you’re gonna wish you took that when you could.”

Grinding her teeth in anger, Olivia faked a smile and responded in turn with a very small curtsey. “Ian!” she faked, “How good it is to see you’re doing well!” 

He embraced her, kissing each cheek as she fought to not roll her eyes, in case there were cameras watching. “It looks like you’re famished,” he laughed and motioned her to sit in the chair at the end of the table. A servant moved behind her to push the chair in. 

“Oh, well, that’s what happens when you spend two years in hiding,” she added faux-jovially as he took the trek to the other end of the table. 

“Yes! That is right! How ever did you survive all of that?” he commented, as he was pushed into his own seat. 

Under the surface, Olivia was seething, but now she knew who she was dealing with, she knew better than to simply attack him out right, so she continued with the up-beat tone, “Oh, you know,” by watching everyone I know and love die and starve, she continued internally. “Just luck, I suppose,” she grasped.

“Well, we are so glad to have you back in our graces!” he called from across the table, then clapped and two servants came in, carrying covered platters. Once it was in front of her, it was uncovered to reveal a salad course. Olivia, of course, felt her mouth water, but took the time to place the cloth napkin on her lap, then pretend to sip at her water, worried he would have put something in it. 

Ian Fenwick had been born and raised on Earth, characterized by his stout body and wealth. Such wealth he had made on the backs of assisting Martians to Mars. Now, though the wrinkles he continued to have medically removed seemed to come faster than he could keep up with, even if they operated in lower gravity than the one he was raised with. His dark hair was now, she assumed, colored, as it seemed impossible that it had not yet greyed.

His age, however, did not keep him from being a womanizing bachelor. They spoke more of her time on Mars, with Olivia saying as little as possible, as well as mostly moving her food around on her plate, unwilling to trust him not to poison her, as it had been rumored he’d been fond of doing. 

Upon the third course, the meat course, he did call her out for it though, “I haven’t poisoned you, you know. If I’d wanted you dead, I could have just left you with the Earthers!” he still had a light tone, but Olivia knew better. There had to be a reason that she was here besides the kindness of his heart. 

“The Earthers weren’t too bad,” she joked, giving a nod to his own ancestry. “I do find it odd that you had to kill them all though. But, they are a fighting bunch…” she attempted, now, to do her best to see if all of them had indeed been killed, or if there was hope for the few others whose bodies she did not see floating dead on board. 

A slight shiver ran down her spine as she thought of Amos’ dead eyes staring up at her, just as Ian gave an almost shrill laugh. “ Not all of them, your Excellency! I have a plan for one of them. I only needed one though.” It seemed a fun game to him, so Olivia let it lie, not wanting to anger herself to the point of not being able to hold it in. She was close enough as it was. 

“And your plan for me?” she asked, unable to resist.

“Well, we will shoot some propaganda footage, with your beautiful alive,” he emphasized, “face, of course. Try to give the Martians something to keep strong for.” He moved his hands, implying a banner of sorts, “Prime Ministers Ian and Olivia Fenwick!” 

“Excuse me?” she spat instantaneously, so incredulous that she didn’t have time to hold back her tone. 

“Well, the ring was supposed to come out with dessert, but I love a surprise. And, of course, you’ll have to change your last name. It’s not like the Drapers’ held power outside of your engagement to Bryson,” he said simply, as if that were the thing she was incredulous about. 

Olivia sat silently, feeling the heat in her cheeks rising. She was sure that if she didn’t agree there would be propaganda with her less than alive body, claiming Ian Fenwick to be the next standing member for Martian leadership.

As if reading her mind, he continued, “I know, I know. I could have just captured you and have you killed. But I was such a fan of your father’s, and it seems much more legitimate this way, as you are the natural heir to the position and all.” 

She knew, from her time in the Martian aristocracy that his statement was a clear threat, pointing out to Olivia what she would become if she didn’t go with his plan. She would be dead.

“Yes, yes. I am as well.” Charles’ eyes never left his laptop as his fingers continued their clickety-clack b

A trail of scarlet slowly trickled towards the drain grate from Commander Brock’s temple. He was laying on his side on the cold concrete floor of his cell, no longer bound but still unable to move his hands, legs or anything else due to sheer exhaustion. His eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, with voices and hallucinations filling the time between rounds of mental and physical torment. The occasional memory from his youth supplied a temporary refuge before the relentless aches yanked him back into his dark, hopeless reality. 

Andrea’s motives had evolved beyond the simple extraction of information. She delighted in breaking the body and spirit of her newly acquired prisoner, utilizing the device that infused indescribable pain with the push of a button in accordance with her whims. Charles renounced his Earthen heritage, pledged lifelong servitude to the Martian empire, and other humiliating submissions to appease his captor enough to stop the pain, if she felt so inclined. 

It wasn’t always Andrea’s presence that graced his cell. Random insurgent soldier came and went in her absence, introducing themselves with kicks and taunts.Charles found these to be merciful respites from the pain of the remote. It was the fiery hair and cold blue eyes that always accompanied the truly hellish torture. After a lengthy period of restless silence, Andrea stormed into his cell with a new approach to her objectives.

“Well, little soldier,” she pondered aloud. “I’m very displeased with you.”

Charles opened his mouth to respond, but no sound would come.

“You still haven’t fully submitted yourself. You’re going through the motions. Just saying enough to stop the pain. Your motivation doesn’t extend beyond that superficiality.”

Laying upon the concrete floor covered in blood and bruises, he couldn’t comprehend her point.

“I suppose a night’s punishment will be enough to push you to where you need to be.” Charles would barely have enough time to widen his eyes in horror before the pain pierced its hellish hello once more.

“Sleep well, toy soldier,” Andrea said through a mocking sigh while leaving Charles collapsed, consumed in hopeless, screaming agony.

The pain was simply too much. And then, in an instant, it stopped.

“Commander Brock, sir?” The voice of Hicks came through the blackness of void.

“Hicks?” Charles responded from some timeless, placeless space. “I thought you were dead.” A stiff pause of consideration filled his mind. “Am I dead?” he asked hesitantly.

“Not quite yet, sir, but you’re getting close.” The tone in Hicks’ voice offered both a warning and consolation.

A sigh escaped Charles’ lips. “I think I’m ready. I mean, if you’re meant to be my guardian angel and take me to the other side, or whatever the hell is going on right now…”

“Is that what I’m supposed to be?” Hicks asked musingly. “Or maybe I’m just a figment of your imagination? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’ve lost control.”

“Control? Of what exactly?”

“Your duty as a soldier of the Earthen empire.”

“I’ve already renounced my allegiance,” Charles pleaded as an explanation, stifling a sob. “That fucking bitch was able to torture that out of me. I’ve already failed. I’m already a traitor.”

“Words need nothing,” Hicks pressed without condemnation. “Especially in the shadow of action. You can make things right by taking control, by pressing your advantage. By fighting back.”

“What advantage?” Charles asked through a laugh. “I’m down to my last wits. My strength and willpower are gone. How can I fight like this? How can I even lift a finger?”

“You have more control than you can even realize. You have been blessed with the Liquid. It still surges through you. Looking for an outlet. Ready to be used at your command.”

“What are you even…” Charles thought desperately, trying to make sense of Hicks’ explanation. 

“Olivia softened you up. Lowered your guard. Your squad is now dead. The Zenith is now claimed by a bunch of insurgents who aren’t even fit to have their boots aboard your ship. And now it’s time to reestablish control.” 

“The Liquid,” Hicks stressed, “is the key.”

There was a resounding silence against the matte blackness. Charles felt an invisible finger press upon his chest, above his heart.

“It won’t be fun, but I know you’re ready for what you have to do.” 

Finally, Charles understood. He calmed his breathing, stopped his heart, and let his blood run cold.


“And how’s my little soldier toy? Has unbearable pain made a good bedfellow?” Andrea skipped into Commander Brock’s cell after a time with her remote in hand, a slender finger teasing the press of a button.

A cold silence greeted her. She saw Charles’ body splayed upon the cold concrete, swallowed in shadow. The lack of reaction to her presence concerned her enough to flick on the lights. A corpse-like visage presented itself without apology.

“Oh no,” Andrea muttered to herself as her demeanor instantly deflated. “Oh no, no, noooo.” She rushed to Charles’ side and knelt for a closer observation. Lifeless eyes stared back into her own without a flinch. A pair of fingers against Charles’ jugular confirmed her fear.

“Medic!” she finally yelled to those waiting outside the cell door. “I need a Medic in here, STAT!”

Personnel flooded into the cell, quick to lift Charles onto a gurney and push him out into the hallway. Andrea followed closely by his side.

“You are NOT going to die on me,” she hissed against Charles’ ear. “Not yet. I’ve cracked you, but you’re not broken. Not by my standards.”

A defibrillator was applied to Charles’ chest after we was laid upon a table in the infirmary some distance away from his cell. “CLEAR!” A doctor yelled before the first pulse of electricity. No reaction, no response.

“CLEAR!” Commander Brock’s back bucked but again, his vitals offered no response. Another medic injected a syringe of adrenaline directly into his heart before a third round of electricity.

Time passed as medical personnel crowded around Commander Brock. Hope soon faded and eventually, a sheet was drawn over his body. A disappointed Andrea was left alone in the infirmary, standing close to Charles’ body with her eyes glazed with disbelief. “No,” she solemnly pleaded. “It can’t be. Not my toy soldier.” 

She slowly approached Commander Brock’s body to place a mournful hand upon her project of pain. After a moment of silent grieving, her palm felt a pulse of warmth course through the corpse beneath the sheet of white.

“What the…”

A forceful punch sent Andrea airborne towards a soldier standing guard near the infirmary’s doorway, collapsing them both onto the ground. The remote she held so dear slid across the tiled floor from her pocket. The clik-clak of a dropped rifle also announced its opportunity for a new marksman. A reanimated Charles ripped off the sheet that assumed him dead and pounced forward to quickly claim both. He then took a large step with his newly acquired weapon over the mess of limbs on the ground, but not before locking his eyes upon Andrea’s own gaze of disbelief. 

“Your toy soldier is back in action,” Charles stated firmly, not being able to help himself. “This one has a power switch.”

Moving quickly to the hallway, Charles dropped soldiers with pinpoint accuracy as unarmed personnel ducked and hid for cover. With the gunfire still ringing in the air, he reached for a nearby medipad to look up a schematic of the facility and memorized two locations where his recon suit might be located. 

He navigated towards the first target with a brisk march that seemed to part an unobstructed path in its wake. Unarmed staffed made no attempt to intervene, keeping as safe a distance as they possibly could. Charles soon found himself at a series of storage lockers and wasted no time busting them open with a pair of adrenaline-fueled fists. His recon suit wasn’t to be found, but a slew of weaponry upgrades were quickly snatched, including a grenade launcher and an upgraded rifle. He emptied the magazine of his discarded rifle and scattered the shells on the ground before moving on to the second objective. 

A blaring message over the intercom system of the facility stopped Charles in his tracks for the briefest moment. ALERT. CODE RED. ALL SOLDIERS CONVERGE TO INTERCEPT AND NEUTRALIZE ESCAPED PRISONER. LEVEL 3 THREAT. ALERT.

“About damn time,” he snarled before continuing his relentless stride.

Charles eventually found himself at the end of a hallway, looking upon a textured glass room that obscured the interior. The reinforced door resisted a well-placed shoulder impact, but his grenade launcher made short work of the hapless barricade. Shrouded by the smoke, Charles emerged into the room and dodged a pair of sputtering sparks that announced the positions of two insurgent soldiers. His return fire was much more accurate, ending one threat before the casual roll of a grenade ended the other with a well-placed explosion. 

At last, he was alone. Scanning the room, he found a glass case resting upon a table and made a slow approach. Looking inside, he found his prize: the ESTI-issued recon suit he wore to investigate the ghost ship. Wasting no time, he burst the glass open to claim what was his. With a bloodied hand, he found a well-hidden button within its collar and pressed it. All at once and within the blink of an eye, the suit moved as though sentient to engage its rightful owner, fully suiting Charles with a few snap-like maneuvers.

Charles hardly had time to confirm the suit’s powerbank levels before a group of soldiers greeted him through the fading smoke with trained weapons upon his chest. “Halt! Drop your weapon! NOW! Drop it or we will shoot!”

A sigh escaped Commander Brock’s lips as he slowly lifted his hands in surrender. And then came the massive pulse wave which burst forward from his suit, scattering and slamming the group of insurgents against the wall and onto the ground. He stepped over several stunned soldiers back out into the hallway as a familiar voice made itself known.

“Welcome back, Commander Brock. Pulse Devastator Attack successful. Suit auxiliary power now at 14%.”

“You poor thing,” Charles said in response. He then shifted his focus ahead. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

A series of grenade explosions and rifle rounds helped to clear the way towards the facility’s hangar. With soldiers fleeing in every direction, Charles found himself upon an unimpressive but travel-worthy ship which he took no time to climb aboard. Finding the main control panel, he activated the antimatter engines and plotted a course before pausing to take in the moment.

“Zenith. I’m coming to get you back. And then we’ll wipe these Martian bastards from the face of the planet.”

A sharp knock against the ship’s door pulled his mind abruptly from his solemn promise. Charles looked to see the cause of the ruckus through the door’s small window and refused to believe his eyes. 

“Andrea?? ANDREA! You’ve GOT to be shitting me!”

More furious knocks and muffled screams came as the frenzied look in Andrea’s gaze was undeniable. Thinking quickly, Charles readied himself and then opened the door with a remote command through the control panel. Andrea quickly barged into the ship with blood trickling from her temple, eyes ablaze.

“And just where the FUCK do you think YOU’RE go…”

A gunshot blasted against Andrea’s shin, dropping her quickly to the ship’s grated floor. A remote spilled forward and slid to Commander Brock’s boots. Chuckling to himself, he bent over to pick it up, quietly studying the button that had made his life a living hell since his unexpected and unwelcome return to Mars.

“You really are a crazy pyscho bitch, you know that?” And with that, Commander Brock’s newly claimed ship lifted up towards the waiting sky above.

Olivia found herself contemplating if the dessert indeed was poisoned, and if it was worth it, at this point, to just enjoy a few bites of tiramisu and be done with it all. Between being found on Mars, whisked away towards Earth, Amos being gunned down outside her door, and now being under fucking Fenwick’s thumb, she was coming to her wits end. Give her two more years of rations, sleeping on a rock in a cave, fine. She just wanted to be out of the company of Ian and done playing dress up. Her fork wavered near her mouth, but the survivalist inside kicked in and pushed it back to the plate without a taste, almost angrily.

Ian was still going on about propaganda and wedding nonsense, but it all droned on in her ears. She could remember a time when she used to hear that same voice over the holo-vision in the office of her father, as a young girl of thirteen. At that time, Ian Fenwick was spewing nonsense at Mars from Earth. What about, she couldn’t remember, but she knew it was something about the Liquid and fleeing Earth. Her father came to mind then, his thick dark head of hair, not yet balding in those days, and his chuckle as he found his teenage daughter at his home office door, calling him to dinner. “We have staff, and technology, for that ‘Livy, you don’t have to come collect me,” he joked, shaking his head at her. 

The memory faded as Ian tried to get her attention. Her eyes focused back on him, unenthused. “Are you okay?” he asked, seemingly concerned. Remembering her will to survive, she took a deep breath in and answered her captor chipperly, “Yes, sorry, I just am so tired from the events of the day.” The events where you openly gunned down human beings to be able to crown yourself with my title, she finished miserably in her head, “A title I didn’t even want.”

“Oh, yes of course!” he gasped, seemingly upset with himself for overlooking the thought. He stood up quickly and moved over to her chair, pulling it out and allowing her to stand. He held out his hand gracefully for her to take. With an internal groan, she took it gently, finding his hands clammy and wrinkly. It seemed that the surgeons had not yet found a way to reverse the aging there, like they had his face and neck. Olivia stifled a grimace as she attempted to distract her mind from wandering further in that line of thought. 

“Would you like to have a seat in the sitting room, or go back to your quarters?” he asked, graciously. She knew what he wanted her to say, but she could feel herself slipping, and it was dangerous to do so in front of him. 

“To my quarters, please. I think I am feeling faint from all of the rich food. I just am not used to that quality anymore, you know,” she tried, feeling his hand close around hers tighter at the mention of the word faint. With a nod, Ian led her down a familiar set of hallways, and back to her quarters. 

As he bowed at the waist and left her, kissing her cheek for a bit longer this time, Olivia contemplated how much of this facade of a delicate flower was becoming actually true. She entered the room and looked in the full length mirror across from her. While she knew there was an enormous difference between the woman in the cave and the woman before her now,  fingering a black ringlet of her hair softly, she wondered what she had become in just the course of a few hours, or worse, what she was yet to become.

Silently and motionless, she stood as the two maids undid her dress and underthings, collecting them and hanging them in an anterior room. Before they could usher her into a nightgown, she nakedly crawled into the sprawling bed to her right. The maids huffed something about her make-up and the sheets, but she ignored them. Waiving them out with a hand, she found herself really alone for the first time since the Zenith. The tears came, then soft, suppressed sobs for Amos and the crew, and then for herself. Eventually, with tear stained cheeks, she fell into a fitful sleep. Amos’ open eyes haunting her. 

Not dissimilar to the days she had lost family members, or when she had to kill other Martians to survive, she dreamed of the events on repeat. It was traumatizing, but in her dreams, it was always worse. If only she could change just this one thing… but alas, she never could, and the death still occurred. This time, she was trying to convince the Commander not to go to that ship.

The Commander,” she thought, and sat straight up out of her sleep, grasping the blanket to her. “Charles,” she found herself whispering, barely aloud. And then she remembered what Ian had said at dinner. “I have a plan for one of them. I only needed one though,” she heard him repeat in her head as well as the shrill laugh that had preceded it. Olivia put her head in her hand and rubbed her temples, her eyes closed tightly.

What could she really do? Nothing.

Angrily, she fell back on the pillows. Not able to believe she had let that piece of all of this slip so easily from her mind. Her stomach grumbled, as if to remind her that it may have not been her fault entirely. She still chided herself, citing that she had gone much longer on much less before.

Falling back into her fitful slumber, she found it filled with Charles, his body slightly transparent to her, and with Ian Fenwick’s voice from the newscasts years ago. It boomed in her sleep, encouraging Martians to stand up to Earthers. Ephemeral Charles reached out to her as Ian’s voice continued, Olivia reached and reached but never seemed to be able to reach his hand, though each time she was sure she would. 

Just as she was about to grab on to his hand, a noise near her head startled her out of sleep suddenly, Charles’ hand fading before her eyes as she blinked them open to find the maid from the afternoon before. The maid jumped as Olivia did, and started apologizing. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” she said, calming down. She noticed that the woman had brought her a tray of food. Before she could thank her, the maid had disappeared, and Olivia had caught a whiff of the coffee on the tray.

She did mental gymnastics around the possibility of poison in her food, all the while the coffee called to her. Her stomach grumbled in protest as well. If he really wanted to rescue her to marry, she had to be alive to do that, right? With her eyebrows raised in a here-goes-nothing expression, she reached for the coffee and took a sip of the warm beverage. Shaking her head, she wondered how far she was going to fall from her self ethics upon this ship. 

The same circular set of events would occur daily, the maids would appear with food or extravagant clothing for her, and if it was the latter, they would show her to the dining hall, where Ian awaited her. During this time, she ate and attempted to keep up the jovial conversation. Occasionally, she would ask around his plans for Charles, but she was never quite brave enough to ask out right. Ian would go on about wedding details, occasionally things would be brought to her to “approve”, but Olivia never cared. Often, she just stared at his perfect face and wondered how old he actually was, around seventy, maybe. Or how many surgeries he had. Or, how much food and aid those surgeries could have provided for the people he longed to lead. 

Despite her efforts each night, the nightmares would return. Ephemeral Charles would silently haunt her, while her husband-to-be’s TV personality voice would reverberate in the background, talking of war on Mars. And each time, she would wake with a start, just out of Charles’ reach. 

Olivia wondered how long she had before Ian would kill her. She kept pushing off the propaganda videos he wanted to shoot of her, each time for different reasons, not being camera ready, feeling tired from the journey, or not liking how the full G of gravity made her face look. Ian was desperate though, and the last one had made him change the entire ship’s gravity to match that of Mars for her. She was running out of excuses and she was running out of time.

The venom and bile that spewed forth from Andrea’s mouth fell on deaf ears, even as she clutched the bloody shin wound that dribbled blood onto the cold metal floor. Commander Brock was simply too focused on maneuvering his new acquisition of ship that propelled his escape from the insurgent facility that held him captive for an agonizing blur of days… or was it weeks? It didn’t matter. Now wasn’t the time to sort out his recent fog… he instead embraced the challenge that presented itself before him, without fear or hope. Fate would have its way regardless.

“They’re not going to let me go easy,” Charles thought to himself as the weaponless D-class freighter ship rose much slower into the sky than his liking. As if in response to his thought, a deafening impact blasted against the ship’s hull, careening it to its side. Andrea hurtled in response against a wall and banged her head with an almost sickening thunk, quickly losing consciousness thereafter. A shaken but determined Charles steadying the ship was the last sight that graced her eyes before she was swallowed in blackness.

Andrea awoke with a pounding headache, buckled to a passenger’s seat with her wrists bound, a few yards behind the occupied captain’s chair. The wound on her shin was dressed, and a jug of water was nested between her feet.

“Whuh… what hap…” she began, fighting her way to coherence.

The person sitting in the captain’s chair gave no response. He seemed to be busy with monitoring a screen, fully obscured except for soft sounds of movement and a dark tuft of hair rising just above the chair.

“What.” Andrea demanded through the fog of headache with a fierce determination, sharp spittle escaping her lips. “What the fuck happened?!”

There was a moment’s hesitation before the captain’s chair turned. There sat Commander Brock, a trickle of dried blood across the left side of his face, arms folded to greet the now conscious Andrea.

“I was hoping you’d be knocked out for the entire trip,” he confessed through a sigh. “At any rate, we took a direct hit from a rocket that almost crashed us into a radio tower. I guess we were looking death straight in the eye for a few moments there.” Charles pulled his cheek in a gesture that said but we made it, after all.

“The ship took a serious hull breach, but no essential components were damaged. At least in terms of travel.” He guided Andrea’s sight with a finger point to a particular door towards her left. “Beyond that door is the point of no return. I managed to seal it with a gravity field that should hold for the time being. I assume it goes without saying to not try and make some dumbass escape through there?”

Andrea narrowed her eyes before noticing on the monitor screen that the ship they were on was gliding through the void of space.

“Where are we going?” she asked reluctantly, slowly coming to terms with the predicament she was in.

“Earthen Outpost E7-G. Manufactured planetoid on the outskirts of Mars gravitational radius. We should have just enough juice to get there.” Charles shifted his captain’s chair back around and refocused his attention on the monitor screen that updated periodically with new readouts. “I would have tried to reach an Earth station on Mars, but I didn’t want to risk more insurgent attacks within atmospheric reach of the cronies you were with.”

Andrea soaked in his explanation while observing her surroundings. Commander Brock had clearly been busy. Now in his fatigues, he had jerry-rigged a power output station to energize his recon suit. The pain-delivering remote she loved as though a daughter was resting on a table a few strides away. It would be a futile method to turn the tables with her being fastened to her chair. Charles clearly placed it within her line of sight as a twisted tease of what could no longer be.

“Why didn’t you just kill me?” Andrea finally asked after almost a half hour of silence.

There was another pregnant pause before Charles spoke. “I thought about it, certainly. But I figured I could return a favor and deliver you to the right people so they could torture some information out of you.”

Andrea’s cobalt eyes widened slightly. “You kept me alive to get revenge. I guess you’re just as sick in the head as me. You do know that if and when I get the chance, I’ll escape, kill you, or both?”

“I sure do, yup. That’s why I’ve taken every precaution, even those you’re not aware of.” Charles let the topic drop and continued with his business. 

More time passed. A restless Andrea interrupted Commander Brock’s train of thought with more musings.

“They’re going to rape me, aren’t they? Kill me, then rape me. Or kill me as they’re raping me.” She seemed to be musing aloud with some concoction of reflective amusement and outright concern.

Charles sighed while still tending to his task. “I’ll put in a good word that even though you made my life an absolute agonizing hell, you technically let me live. So I seriously doubt it on the killing part.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Andrea remarked sarcastically. “But I guess they’ll still fuck me ten ways to Sunday. One after the other, I presume. That’s what I get for tending to my health and beauty, I suppose.”

A loud groan of impatience left Commander Brock’s lips before he spun his captain’s chair around to face Andrea. “What kind of savages do you take us for? No one is going to rape you. You’ll be interrogated, probably alongside some discomfort, but your sexual organs are safe. So buck up and take what you’ve got coming on the chin, darling.”

“You sure about that?” Andrea asked with a raised eyebrow. Before Charles could respond, she continued. “It would have been different for us, you know.”

Charles balked at Andrea’s direction of conversation. “What do you mean, us? What would have been different?”

“Well,” she began with a breath, “I did really enjoy torturing you. But I never dreamed of killing you. As a matter of fact, I was planning on what we would do once I found you broken and despondent to my liking.” The incredulous shrug of Charles’ shoulders prompted further details to spill from Andrea’s lips.

“I would have broken the remote right before your eyes before escorting you to my personal quarters. I wanted to be your first. To take your V-card. I wanted to whisper my toy soldier into your ear as you panted and shuddered to the finish line on top of me.”

Commander Brock’s mouth was agape. He simply couldn’t believe his ears. Andrea’s puppydog eyes did a decent job of selling her story, but the sharp pains of the remote quickly surfaced to the forefront of his mind. Charles collected himself with straightened shoulders and tore his gaze away from Andrea with a swivel of his chair.

“Don’t ever call me toy soldier again,” he firmly stated before assuming his role as captain once more.


The speck of something distant appeared on the visual monitor, prompting Commander Brock to straighten himself in his chair. The stolen freighter that he and Andrea occupied was now approaching its intended destination. Their approach seemed to instill a little nervousness into the otherwise stalwart demeanor of the stolen ship’s captain.


Charles leaned into his microphone with a calm and collected voice, in spite of the sweat on his brow. “Roger that. We have intentions to surrender ourselves to Outpost E7-G. This ship has been commandeered and is absent of registry codes. One Earthen soldier and one captive on board. Earthen soldier authorization code is A63437167-CB. Over.”

There was a tense pause that lasted more than a few seconds before Charles received a response. “Authorization code valid. The ship will be gravitationally tethered upon atmospheric breach and directed to a designated docking platform. Prepare for immediate boarding upon landing. Over.”

An exhale of relief escaped Commander Brock’s lips. It seemed he had finally made it. Andrea’s squirm in her seat indicated other thoughts.


The freighter landed without a hitch, and it wasn’t long before the loud sound of a punch was heard against its metallic frame. Soon, an explosion burst itself through with heavy smoke, flooding heavily armed soldiers into the ship as they barked their stern commands. Charles sat with his hands in surrender clearly in sight. Andrea’s folded arms resonated her own reluctance. Both were unapologetically yanked from their seats and marched outside, where a processing facility awaited with its barbed wire walls and cold concrete decor.

After being stripped of their clothes and forced into bioscan x-ray machines, the pair were given new clothes and led towards a room with stencil-painted words reading DEBRIEFING AND INTERROGATION. Inside a high-ranking officer sat at his desk, looking mildly interested at his arrivals with two chairs waiting for them to take their seats.

“Well well,” the officer said after everything had settled down, nodding a command to the escorting soldiers to relinquish their holds on Charles’ and Andrea’s shoulders. “Commander Brock, I’m Earthen Army Lieutenant Colonel Rolander. Fancy seeing you here. Our latest flight logs had you on course to Luna after a brief diversion to investigate a free-floating vessel. I’d love for you to fill in the gaps since then.”

“Well, sir,” Charles began before recounting his story with verifiable details. Initial disbelief in Rolander’s eyes receded into a mix of intrigue and horror and finally, satisfaction.

“And here I was thinking you had defected to the Martian forces,” Rolander laughed aloud, with Commander Brock nervously laughing with him. “We were informed that the Zenith has been attacked, but I never thought it amounted to something of this magnitude. It seems like you’ve been through quite the ordeal.”

Charles nodded and sighed. “It’s been hell, but I’m glad I managed to find a way out.”

Rolander smiled before nodding towards Andrea. “And this one? What should be done with her?” 

She had been quiet since her arrival, her arms folded with blank eyes as she was closely watched by nearby soldiers. Charles turned to look upon her and exhaled a thought before returning his attention to Rolander.

“She has some useful information to share, I’m sure. I’d investigate her rank and have at it with your best and burliest.”

“Very well.” Rolander leaned back into his chair and clasped his hands together. “You’ll be happy to know that I’ve authorized a Recon Dispatch Squad to hunt down and reclaim the Zenith. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was back under Earthen possession within seventy-two hours.”

Charles smiled and nodded slowly at the news. “Sir,” he began hesitantly, “may I have permission to join them?”

Lieutenant Colonel Rolander scoffed at the idea. “You’re in no shape to undertake a mission right now, Commander. Take as much time as you need to rest and recuperate. We’ll then deploy you back to ESTI.”

“Sir,” Commander Brock respectfully persisted, “I could be of great use to the mission. I know the Zenith like the back of my hand and could expedite the operation with my hands-on expertise. Besides,” he remarked with unsure resonance, “I have a score to settle with those insurgent bastards.”

“A score to settle!” Rolander laughed even harder. “Well that does sound like a good weapon to have in our arsenal for a competitive edge. But I’m sorry, Commander. The operation is under Earthen Army jurisdiction. You being an ESTI officer would only muck up the chain of command, and give me a headaches worth of paperwork if you happened to KIA on the mission.”

Charles slumped back in his chair with a look of disappointment, before a surprise voice interjected: “Let him go on the mission.”

“What?!” Rolander yelled in disbelief. The voice came from Andrea, and she wouldn’t stop there. “I can join him. I’d be the perfect bargaining chip.”

“Excuse me, miss?” Rolander inquired while leaning forward in his seat. “Bargaining chip? What exactly do you mean there?”

“I rank as a Lieutenant Colonel myself, believe it or not.” Andrea allowed a slow smile to spread across her face. “You’d have perfect leverage if something went awry on your mission, or you could announce me as your hostage outright. Your call.”

“Uh huh…” Rolander raised his eyebrow in disbelief. “I’d have to verify that piece of trivia on your rank before I believed it. Besides, how can I ensure your cooperation without some sort of stunt at escaping?”

Andrea’s smile spread even wider. “You Earth jerks seem to have no problem implanting people with all kinds of wacky machinery. Just install some kind of bomb or tracking device into me. If I get out of line, kaboom.”

Rolander pursed his lips in thought as Charles watched Andrea with amazement. Andrea continued, “Like I said, my offer only stands if Commander Brock is allowed to join the mission alongside me.”

The Earthen Colonel stayed silent, lost in thought. A few moments passed before he unclasped his hands as if to say, all righty then. “Very well. It looks like we have two new additions to the mission. Let’s get Commander Brock up to speed and Andrea under the knife and make this happen. Paperwork be damned!”


Time passed quickly by purpose and design. Charles was introduced to the Recon Squadron, and a newly harnessed Andrea joined them aboard the Warship Tracker.

“She’s built for speed,” Rolander remarked while patting the black metallic hull before saluting his goodbye as the ship departed on its mission. That fact was proven in flight time as the insurgent ship which attacked the Zenith was quickly traced. Pilot Cordéz made it known to the squad during their approach: “It looks like they’ve seen us coming. Scanners indicate that alarms have been sounded and soldiers are assembling their positions.”

“Good,” Commander Brock said while staring at the ship through the viewfinder. “Let’s make everything right again, and kick ass while doing it.”

Silently resigned, Olivia found herself in a cream gown. It was spotted with crystals and blue sapphires, and the train sprawled back behind her, through the seats of the audience. The audience, mostly made up of crew members, sat mostly silently. A cough or adjusting of their seat could be heard easily in the reverberating ceiling arches of the main hall of the supership. Gripping the bouquet in her hands, Olivia tried to will her body to run, to sprint back down the aisle and somehow off of the ship. But, nothing happened, she stood still, and even the gripping of the bouquet seemed like nerves. 

She found her focus on Ian Fenwick then, the ancient, wealthy Earther who had decided he wanted her title. He seemed unperturbed and unworried. He wore a dark suit which matched his dyed dark hair, his tie matching Olivia’s crystals. She wondered if this man was even straight, but realized it didn’t matter, as he was doing it for the power anyways. The captain of the vessel beside her, acting as the priest, began speaking, but Olivia couldn’t seem to understand a word he was saying, it was vague and garbled in her ears. 

Her focus moved back to the last couple of days, then. Three days ago, or was it four? She had surprised herself by agreeing to Ian’s offer of shooting some “promotional material”, as he called it, where she previously had been able to deny him or delay him. It was a surprise to her as she had let the “yes” escape her lips. 

Excitedly, Ian had taken her hand, and though she wanted to pull it away, she found she couldn’t. Olivia followed him though, her face placent. Ian held on to her hand still as make-up artists fawned over her. She found that she couldn’t do much more than stare off into space, vaguely confused about what was happening to her.

“Why can’t I say no?” she wondered to herself, but before the thought had fully formed, it floated away, and she seemed unable to find it ever again. 

They were in a stage area then, lights hot and bright. She heard her name called, and she looked up to find herself staring into a large black camera. “Read the lines,” she heard, and a prompter suddenly appeared in her sights. Olivia knew she was reading something, but she couldn’t exactly understand what she was saying. 

Soon, she found herself scratching at the costume she was wearing. Some sort of orange fiber on her arms was itching. “A sweater, maybe?” she wondered, and her attention was called again, almost with a scolding sound. Her arm stopped itching then, and she was in the dining hall in her usual spot. Desert was being brought out, so she must have already had dinner. She couldn’t remember having even breakfast though. 

A blink later, and she was back in her room, her quarters? She wore a soft white nightgown and was curled up in the blankets. For a moment, she wondered how long she had been just sitting there staring at the woman in front of her. She seemed sad, but she looked well fed. Her cheeks didn’t have the hollows that most Martians these days did, but her grey eyes were haggard. ”Why is she so sad?” she asked herself. Maybe she was an Earther? Earthers got a lot of food, especially the females that they had left. But her stature was slight, a characteristic of a Martian and growing up in lower gravity. Olivia reached out towards her, to take her hand and ask why she looked so sad.

She got out of the bed slowly, and the woman rose to meet her. Scared that she was in a dream, Olivia wondered if she was going to actually be able to grasp this woman’s hand. They got close, and she found there was a glass wall between them. Olivia put her hand on the glass, and the woman did the same, matching her hand placement. Her head tilted to the left, and the woman’s tilted to match. 

It was then she realized, she had been looking in the mirror at herself. Embarrassed, she crawled back into the bed without a look back at the sad woman. Olivia laid down on the pillow, and her hand moved to touch her own face. It was wet, she found. She had been crying. Before she could wonder why though, Olivia found herself staring at Ephemeral Charles again. 

He was less ephemeral now, more solid to her, but she still couldn’t reach him, though she stretched out and tried. “Help me,” she heard her own voice say to him, but wasn’t sure she had said it. He remained silent, but his brown eyes implored her to reach him. His jaw was clenched, and for the first time she noticed he was wearing a Martian space suit, the old kind you got before the war. 

Confused, she took in the details of the suit, but it changed before her eyes. It transformed into a Martian dress uniform. And as she followed the suit upwards, Ian Fenwick was now in it, grinning at her. “Smile, my dear,” he said to her in a low whisper, and Olivia’s face changed to match his order.

His dark eyes sparkled at her as he took her hand once again. This time, he held both though. Olivia felt more tears falling from her cheeks then. She wondered if the people playing witness to the union would take them as tears of happiness. Looking out at the crew of the ship again, she internally implored them to help her. 

They were all rising, then running. Red lights started flashing across their worried faces and she felt Ian tugging on her hand. The people were leaving them, the chairs, altar, and flowers being pulled into the floor like the behind the scenes of a magic trick. 

She was running too, then, her hand still grasped in Ian’s. The bridge appeared before them, the screens showing green and red dots that Olivia was sure was some sort of game. The red dots seemed to be getting closer, and more and more green dots were appearing out of the middle of the screen. 

The floor shook, and with it, she felt something cold and metallic against her temple. Olivia felt Ian’s warm presence behind her, as if in a hug. She wanted to pull away, or to turn around, but she heard him say, “Stay still,” gruffly in her ear, and her body complied.

A warm liquid splattered across her face suddenly, and she reached up to her cheek to see if she had been crying again. She pulled back her hand, expecting to find the clear tears, but instead found hot wet blood. She started to worry then, but she looked up to a blur of a person coming up to her. 

Olivia, collapsed on her knees, tried to remember if Ephemeral Charles had ever spoken to her in her dreams before. He was now, but she couldn’t understand what he was saying. Where the normal drone of Ian’s voice usually was, there was now a high pitched ringing. She felt her face scrunch up at the realization of the sound, it hurt her head. Ephemeral Charles, who was not at all ephemeral now, repeated the same thing to her again, his hand still outstretched to her. 

Knowing this song and dance, she reached up to attempt to grab his hand. Surprisingly, she found it solid and warm in hers. Suddenly, she was confused. She had never been able to grab his hand before, but now that she had it, she didn’t want to let it go. 

The ground was moving again, and Olivia realized she was sitting in a chair, two straps crossed her torso and locked between her legs. “Oh no,” she said softly, looking at the hole in the beautiful white dress that the straps went into. “Oh no,” she repeated, looking for Ephemeral Charles who was still no longer ephemeral, and found his hand was still safe in hers, and she hadn’t lost it. “Okay,” she said softly, and with her free hand, took her pointer finger and circled each of the red stains on the white fabric.

“I’m sorry I ruined it,” she said, tugging on his hand slightly, in an attempt to get his attention. She saw Charles open his mouth, but she couldn’t hear what came out. With the ringing now fading, though still making her head pound, she could only hear the laughter of a woman. Olivia reached up to check if the sound was coming out of her own mouth, but found it closed. 

She turned around, and found the source of the laugh. A Martian woman with bright red hair was laughing maniacally behind her. The woman was also strapped into her seat, but her hands were bound. She also wore a dark jumpsuit of some kind, rather than the stained dress that Olivia wore. The laughter subsided, but Olivia stared on at her, wondering if she was supposed to have been laughing too.

“All that for this broken bitch? What a waste,” she read from the lips of the red haired woman, and Olivia’s brows furrowed, deciding she didn’t like the woman. 

The woman faded from her vision as Olivia faded into sleep. This time though, she didn’t have any dreams of Ephemeral Charles. She didn’t dream of the open eyes of the crew of the Zenith. Olivia slept peacefully in a dreamless sleep for the first time in what felt like weeks.

“You know this goes against my better judgment, Commander.”

Charles nodded his understanding, staying quiet so as to not push his luck. He sat alone behind the large desk of the Lieutenant Colonel, with Andrea having been escorted from the Debriefing room to tend to her preparations. The last seventy-two hours (or more? or less? who knew?) was such a whirlwind of extremes that he began to feel the exhaustion seep into his bones. Charles wouldn’t dare say a word about it to the Colonel, though, in fear of forfeiting his role in the mission meant to claim back the Zenith… his ship. He figured a few unannounced hours in a rejuvenation tank might soothe over the aches and pains that now seemed to pulse and crawl through the meat of his muscles. 

“We’ve getting along quite well, Brock. I’m surprised. ESTI and the military haven’t exactly been on the same page lately. What with the mandate and all.”

“Yes, sir,” Charles responded with a slow nod. “For what it’s worth, my personal views lean towards the distribution of the Liquid. When utilized correctly, I believe it can only enhance lives for the better. I myself am a living testament to that altruistic purpose.”

“You don’t have to suck up to me, Commander.” The Colonel sat back in his chair with a sigh, seemingly ready to move on to another topic. “Our agents in the field indicate some sort of upheaval amongst the insurgent ranks. Apparently, a shift in power is currently underway. We don’t know all the details yet, but…” The Colonel twiddled his thumbs along his slight belly, allowing the revelation to settle in the air. “I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter much. They’re hard bastards to pin down in terms of their political dynamics.”

Charles thought back on Olivia for a moment. He decided against that revelation for now.

“It’s only a matter of time before Earth’s inevitable triumph,” Charles remarked before standing up from his chair. “With all due respect, I’d like to get a head start on preparations for the operation. I imagine your intelligence officers will want to inquire further on my experience at the insurgent’s facility.”

“Ah yes,” the Lieutenant Colonel conceded before lifting himself as well. “There’s plenty to do in admittedly little time. I’ll have a new battlesuit issued to you, and we can have some friendly introductions to the squad you’ll accompany on the mission. After you’re settled in, of course.” He reached out his hand which Charles promptly shook.

“Thank you sir,” Commander Brock said before saluting his departure from the room.


Charles reported to the Armory at 0800 per his comlink’s prior instruction. He was refreshed after time spent in a rejuvenation chamber, and the injuries he sustained at the insurgent’s facility were mostly healed. The outpost’s large and confusing layout had him asking for directions along the way, but eventually he found himself at a large, hangar-like dock with loading bays, stacks of ammunition and weaponry, forklifts and other types of machinery. A brown flag with an eagle-perched insignia read “HONORED WARRIORS OF OUTPOST E7-G” hung proudly from the metal rafters.

Commander Brock was early by twenty minutes but apparently the last to report. Saluting his arrival to Colonel Rolander, he saw that Andrea and her escort were there, as well as five soldiers wearing brown and green fatigues standing tall and rigid with arms plastered against their sides. Each soldier had their name stitched across their right breast as well as a badge of rank and symbol of function.

Charles couldn’t help but quietly gawk at the squad:

Corporal G. Bear, Assault Weapons Specialist. A tall, black, burly male with arms like logs, his chiseled chin sat upon a wide neck that flanked out to a broad back meant to haul the heavy artillery. Veins traveled along his skin like tree roots, and his cold stare inspired dread and fear to those audacious enough to bend their neck upwards to meet it.

Private M. Johnson, Intelligence and Tactical Surveillance. Small but wiry, his slight frame was well-compensated by a vast military acumen. His stern, blue eyes were accompanied by a pair of keen ears, poised to comprehend urgent reports and make split-second decisions towards reinforcements and retreats.

Private S. Henderson, Combat Navigation and Small Arms. This cowboy looked like he was plucked straight from some forgotten Western flick played centuries ago, where everyone died but him. He looked quick to draw and fire with slender, bony fingers meant to pull a hyper-fast trigger. He also took point without fear or hesitation, carving paths to objectives like hot knives through butter.

Corporal J. Cordéz, Pilot. He’s a pilot.

Sergeant M. Allen, Combat Operations and Communications. A muscular brunette with an eyepatch, her resting bitch-face wouldn’t know how to relax if it was under anesthesia. One could tell her voice was well-tuned to bark orders under fire, loud, fierce, and fearless. She chews gum to the rhythmic rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire, and spits it out when something irks her, causing a cascade of concern amongst her loyal troops.

“Had enough to look at, Commander?” Colonel Rolander interjected against Charles’  distrait gaze. Realizing his lapse of attention, he straightened his stance and arched his back. 

“Yes, sir. Apologies, sir. I got caught up in the squad’s impressive presentation.”

“Very good,” Rolander commented while folding his arms behind his back. “We’ll save personal introductions for later. All you need to know now is that these five make up my most trusted, battle-tested squadron assigned to special operations. You’ll report to Sergeant Allen during the operation, and I assume it goes without saying that her word is your law, Commander?”

Charles nodded and saluted his understanding. “Without hesitation, Colonel.”

“Wonderful.” Rolander walked towards Andrea to stand beside her, briefly arching on his heels before speaking. “We’ve decided to utilize our friend Andrea here as a failsafe tactic, instead of bait or leverage. Reason being, her fingerprints and retinas could be useful bypasses for areas we can’t or shouldn’t open by force on the insurgent’s ship.” 

Charles noticed a dried trail of blood below her nose as well as a fresh bruise on her cheek, likely sustained from an interrogation session. He couldn’t help a slight smile pull into the corner of his mouth.

“That means,” Rolander continued with a breath, “that her presence aboard our ship will not be announced unless absolutely necessary. She will of course be restrained and closely watched.” An eyeroll from Andrea was ignored by Rolander but not by a glaring Sergeant Allen.

“You just try something funny aboard our ship, bitch,” she snarled threateningly. “I promise you won’t live to regret it.”

“That’s enough, Sergeant,” Rolander stated, though he quietly seemed satisfied with Allen’s interjection. “Like I said earlier, there will be time later to lay down ground rules and get acquainted.” He then snapped his fingers, prompting a soldier to come forward with a bag in his hand.

“Commander Brock? I promised you a new battlesuit. This one is state of the art.” The soldier handed the bag to Charles, who accepted it with a slight look of surprise on his face.

“Once the Zenith is reclaimed,” Rolander stated to the group as a whole, “Brock here will take command and guide her back here for inspection and recommission. We’ll then release both he and the ship into the waiting hands of the ETSI fleet.”

“What happens to me afterward?” Andrea asked with feigned concern.

Rolander slowly looked her up and down before settling on a response. “Prison colony,” he stated flatly, “unless you have some other usefulness or information to offer.” 

“I guess we can cross that bridge when we get there,” Andrea stated with a slight ominousness. 

Rolander smirked before turning to face the squadron. “The Tracker is currently being prepped for departure. Allen will lead a few drills and confirm weapons and ammunition details before boarding at 1200. Objective reports will be digitally delivered to your personal bulletins in the meantime. Now move out!”


In the squad’s locker room, Charles redressed a few of his lingering wounds before opening the bag that contained his new battlesuit. He draped it with outstretched arms to fully gaze upon it, letting an impressed whistle leave his lips before unzipping to climb within its ultra-enhanced latex-polymer skin. He had barely buttoned himself past his waistline before the purposed stride of Sergeant Allen rounded a corner and approached him.

“Brock. Fancy seeing you in here. You do know this area is technically off-limits to non-commissioned soldiers?”

Charles frowned slightly before turning his eyes downward, returning to the zipping of his suit. “I’ll be out of your hair shortly, sir.”

Allen’s demeanor shifted slightly. “Ma’am. Not sir.” She took a step closer with stern eyes that brimmed slightly with accusation. “I saw how that Andrea girl was looking at you earlier. You two had some serious alone time before you ended up here, as I understand it.” She leaned in slightly with a locked gaze. “Did you two… enjoy one another’s company?”

Charles’ eyes widened at the insinuation. “No… no! Absolutely not! She happened to–“

“Because if you did,” Sergeant Allen interrupted, “and there’s some kinda emotions I don’t know about between the both of you… well, let’s just say my threat about funny stuff applies to you too, Brock.”

Charles continued to zip up his suit, keeping his eyes level with Allen’s. “Who gave her the bruise?” he said after a few silent moments.

“The what?” Sergeant Allen thought a moment on Charles’ question before responding. “One of our boys down at Intelligence. Why?”

“Tell him,” Charles said while finishing his suit, “that I’m recommending him to Rolander for a medal.”

Allen blinked before smirking. “All right then. I’ll pass the news along.”

Charles saluted, which the Sergeant reciprocated. He then left the locker room.


Members of the squad was already making rounds within the Tracker when Charles reported to the ships docks at 1130. He shook his head in quiet admiration before saluting his arrival to Rolander.

“Weapons loaded, ammunition stocked, gravitation systems primed.” Allen was discussing final details with Colonel Rolander as he returned a brisk salute to Brock. The large, sleek, metallic-orange Tracker waited on a launching pad behind them, with large engines tapering slightly towards a cockpit. 

“Commander Brock,” Rolander began after Allen was excused, “I thought it might be useful for you to accompany Cordéz and Henderson as a navigation consultant, due to your experience as a captain.” Charles nodded his understanding and turned to face the reporting squad members for a last briefing.

“I trust you’re all clear on objectives and roles for this operation?” The squad stood stiff and silent as Rolander eyed them up and down individually, then pulled back to address them as a group. “Smooth and by the numbers this time. Engines have been modified for velocity so trip time has been cut down by a third. Now get your asses out there and find that ship. Maybe take our a few insurgents along the way, huh?”

“YES, SIR!” The squad’s collective response echoed throughout the docks before they marched into the ship, with Charles following close behind. Andrea was already inside, bound to a chair, exhaling audibly with impatience. 

Cordéz’s voice sounded through the intercom after he situated himself in the cockpit. “All right, folks, get yourselves comfortable. Countdown initiated before launch, t-minus 45 seconds.” Immediately afterward, the loud hum of gravitation pulse engines made itself known. 

Charles joined Cordéz in the cockpit, where Henderson could also be found, strapping himself into the co-pilot’s seat. “Well, bud, you get the shitty spare seat,” he said with a toothy grin while pointing towards the right wall. “Press that button and it’ll open up for ya. Buckle up and prepare for a sore ass, yeah?”

A robotic voice broadcasted a final ten-second countdown before Cordéz chimed in a last reminder as the ship lifted from the ground. “There’ll be some atmospheric turbulence before we’re spaceborne. No sweat, ladies and gents, it’ll be over before ya know it.”

Finally, the Tracker found itself in full flight and the black void of space swallowed the viewfinders on the ship. Operation Zenith was now in full swing.


“Yes sirree, Bob. Fresh residual chemtrail particles.” Henderson was analyzing the readouts on his command panel’s monitor as the Tracker idled patiently in place. Commander Brock had provided the approximate coordinates where the ambush attack which claimed the Zenith and the lives aboard it took place. An analysis of the area had provided valuable clues, which Henderson and Johnson were deciphering within the cockpit.

“Does that mean we’re hot on a trail?” Charles stood to quietly observe the calculations that were taking place. Both soldiers were immensely focused on the task at hand, working between ship panels and portable pieces of equipment that he didn’t know the first thing about. 

“Working on it, yeah,” Johnson confirmed. “You said the ship that attacked had a cloaking device and got the jump on you?”

“Yes,” Charles said through a sigh. “I never realized the insurgent army had access to that level of technology. I thought it was still classified and undergoing trial phases.” 

“Definitely doesn’t calculate,” Johnson agreed without pulling his eyes or hands from the work at hand. “Definitely something to look into. But not to worry… we’re moving in a cutting edge piece of tech ourselves.” Not long afterward, a series of beeping sounds emitted from a monitor seemed to confirm something.

“Bingo,” Henderson grinned while joining Johnson to admire the numerical data that appeared on the screen. “We’ve got a lock. Our target is approximately seven Earth hours away.”

“Sounds like you eggheads finally found something?” Sergeant Allen chimed in through the intercom. “I certainly hope so, since Corporal Bear is having an itchy trigger finger again.”

“Approximately four hundred and twenty minutes until engagement,” Johnson enthusiastically reported as he returned to his seat. 

“Outstanding,” Allen responded. “Weapons primed, eyes alive, people. I’ll be screaming obscenities at you in no time flat. Cordéz, if you please, point us in the right direction and haul ass double-time. Maybe with some luck we can get this done and be home for dinner.”

After a thirty-five degree pivot and a bright flare of pulse engines, the Warship Tracker blazed a blue streak into the black sea of space.


“All righty, folks, the moment you’ve been waiting for has arrived.” Henderson shifted in his seat and punched a few buttons into his console, prompting a scroll of numerical figures across his monitor.

“Radar range, people. Stay hot. Approximately fifteen minutes before logistical weaponry range.” The almost seven hours before then had been fairly quiet, but at once the ship’s atmosphere seemed to stiffen at Henderson’s announcement. A blinking white dot near the edge of a sea of blankness on Henderson’s screen loomed the forthcoming encounter. 

Charles had been looking down almost the entire time at the pulse rifle embedded in the glove of his battlesuit, tracing circles around the metallic ring, seemingly lost in thought. Once informed of their approach, however, he lifted his head and exhaled deeply. The chance at redemption he had waited for was close at hand.

“Are we able to get a zoom?” Sergeant Allen asked through the intercom.

“Processing schematics now… calculating.” A few moments of tippity-taps were the only sounds to break the silence in the cockpit as Henderson worked his magic upon his console’s keyboard. Finally, his monitor screen seemed to display something of significance.

“Transferring to network display,” Henderson explained before a final keypunch. At once, on the ship’s primary monitor screens displays shared the same image from Henderson’s display, as well as each personal console monitor. A low-resolution image of what seemed to be two smaller ships and one larger ship could be seen. 

A minute or so passed, with the image incrementally becoming larger and clearer. Charles locked his eyes upon it and concluded that the two smaller ships were the Zenith tethered to the insurgent’s assault ship, which was docked alongside a much larger ship… seemingly an R class residential carrier.

“That’s them,” Charles said aloud, turning the heads of Henderson, Johnson, and Cordéz. “The Zenith and the ship that attacked her. The large carrier I don’t know about.”

“Ohh, yes, plenty there to shoot I hope!” The deep voice of Corporal Bear was heard through the intercom, startling Charles for a brief moment. 

“Settle down there, Corporal,” said Sergeant Molly in response. “Have they been alerted to our approach?” she then asked to Henderson.

“No internal mobilization or power fluctuations yet to indicate their cognizance,” he responded. “I’m certain they’ll get wind of us sooner than later though. Shifting to red alert.”

The intermittent flashing of red lights traced contours within the ship for another tense minute. Cordéz kept the ship steady as Henderson studied his monitor’s readouts and Johnson kept a close eye on the zoom view, which had by now taken up nearly the entire width of his console screen.

“There we go,” Henderson confirmed with emphasis while sitting up. “Energy fluctuations detected. They can see us now.” He began typing away again on his keyboard.

“What else can you see?” the Sergeant asked.

“It looks like the Zenith’s force field is fully activated. It’d be a pain trying to punch through for efficiency’s sake.” A lean towards his monitor indicated further analysis. “Force fields on the insurgent ship and carrier as well. Not nearly as intimidating. Class F Destroyers are built for speed and stealth, not defense. I bet a few successive torpedo rounds could pave our way for a rude introduction.”

“How long until the ship’s graviton proximitors can generate a bridge?”

“Three minutes and seventeen seconds.” Commander Brock’s fists tightened anxiously at the news.

“Very well. First objective is to neutralize the Destroyer and its occupants. We then carve our way through the carrier towards the Zenith. Ready the torpedoes and wait for my signal.”

“Sure thing, Sergeant.” Henderson turned a few dials and a slight shift of weight was felt throughout the ship.

“Steady… steady.” Allen’s voice provided calm readiness through the intercom as the three ships were now in crystal clear view on the Tracker’s telescreens. The sight of weapons firing with bright yellow flares would soon shake that foundation.

“Incoming!” Henderson yelled while shifting his head to dodge some invisible bullet. A few yellow streaks swallowed the viewfinder and seemed to slide off the hull of the Tracker, with no apparent disturbance to the ship’s progress. Henderson chuckled as the rush of adrenaline washed throughout the ship.

“Haw haw haw! Like a bee-bee gun against a tank! State of the art force fields, I tell ya. It’ll take a whole helluva lot more than that to even dent us!”

“Henderson?” The calm voice of Sergeant Allen called through the intercom. “Are you done celebrating?”

“Yes ma’am,” he hastily responded while collecting himself.

“Then fire the torpedoes FOR FUCK’S SAKE!”

Three successive rounds responded immediately to Allen’s order, impacting the insurgent’s ship within seconds. A bright orange display sent pieces of metal scattering into every direction. As the fire and smoke cleared, a clear punctured hole was seen in the side of the Destroyer ship.

Henderson worked feverishly on his command panel as beads of sweat trickled down Brock’s temple. “Generating graviton bridge… confirming coordinate lock… done! Let’s move!”

“That’s our ticket,” Allen definitely proclaimed through the intercom. “Ground team, report to the airlock for immediate dispatch!” At once, Charles joined the likes of Bear, Henderson, and Johnson at the arched doorway, with Allen already bellowing orders as a greeting.

“Bear, you punch our hole. Johnson, you carve our path. Brock, don’t step on anyone toes. Henderson, I want PROMPT reports this time! Now move, move, MOVE!” Sergeant Allen pushed all four men at once into the now open airlock with surprising strength, and the door sealed shut behind them with a rush of air. After a moment’s wait, another door opened, exposing them to the blackness of space, with the insurgent ship waiting in the distance ahead.

At first, nothing seemed to happen, with all four men standing in file within the small airlock chamber. Then, a tugging sensation pulled them outward, slowly at first, before they were yanked like rubber bands through the void of space towards the torpedo’s hole which awaited them. All four men tumbled into the ship’s opening to announce their arrivals, save for Corporal Bear, who landed squarely on his feet, guns blazing.

“Hi, Honey! I’m HOME!” Braat-tat-tat, brraaaaaaat, pow-pow, BOOM. BOOM. Brraaaaaaaat. CRASH. Retreat! Retreat!

Charles lifted himself from the floor after having landed awkwardly, groaning his displeasure. Looking before him, the smoke from Bear’s assault rounds lifted against the ship’s ceiling, with many ship components reduced to piles of metallic rubble. Looking behind him, the occasional sheen of an invisible tunnel funneled its way through space back to the Tracker’s airlock.

“You guys coming or what?” Bear waited with smoking gun barrels at the lock junction where the Destroyer lead into the residential carrier. “Lots of commotion ahead. Not just soldiers, people too. Hopefully they stay out of our way, eh?”

Henderson was already at work on his telepad charting a course and taking point. Johnson shook off a bump on his head and was already radioing back to Allen’s anxious ears. “Sergeant, the eagles have landed. Repeat, the eagles have landed.” 

Charles was the last to stand, with the cobalt hues of his palm rifles humming quietly. “Let’s do this,” he said with a determined nod.

Entering the carrier was a surreal sight. It looked like the interior of a Martian city, with people scattering in every direction, scurrying into and around buildings for cover . What strange clothes, Charles thought to himself as he strided behind Bear’s heavy frame and devastating arsenal. Henderson led the way, focused on his telpad, seemingly unworried about an attack happening upon his exposed position. Johnson followed behind Brock, detailing the sight back to Allen.

“Looks like, ah, apartment domiciles. Shops and facilities? Almost like we’re in the middle of a Mars civilian center,” Johnson reported. “People scattering, hiding. No aggressors thus far. Initiating our advance towards objective now.”

Their efficient progress seemed almost like a dream. Bear was gleefully laughing while mowing down insurgent soldiers before they even had a chance to aim their weapons. Henderson steadily fed his chatter back to the Tracker, and Johnson was frequently annoyed with having to slow down to let the rest of his squad play catch up. Charles had yet to make a move besides the march of his steps, and his pace seemed at odds with what Henderson preferred.

“Hey, come on guys, let’s keep up, all right? Like the Sarge said, we get this done, maybe we can get home in time for dinner.” His sigh was followed by a glance at his navigational telepad and a point of his finger. “Made lock confirmation with the Zenith’s target signature. Twenty-five meters this way.”

Charles smiled internally at the news. It seemed like his help wasn’t needed for this mission after all. But soon he would be back aboard his ship, back in command with his worries and woes behind him. He casually turned his head towards a frightened child hiding underneath a building’s stairwell, nodding a silent message that he hoped was correctly conveyed: Don’t worry. Just stay right there. We won’t harm you.

The child didn’t respond back. Instead, an insurgent soldier seemed to materialize a few feet in front of him from thin air, aiming a bazooka towards the squad’s direction. Time seemed to slow, allowing enough time for another thought to cross Commander Brock’s mind.

Now how the hell did they figure out a way to cloak their soldiers—

The explosion lifted Charles into the air, hurtling him towards an alleyway between two buildings. He crashed against a garbage dispensary chute with a loud thud before collapsing onto his knees and elbows. His eyes opened to a pool of blood collecting on the ground, and a phlegmy cough introduced more with a dribble from his lips. He felt his suit activate across the entirety of his body, with a pleasant voice feeding him a report.

“Explosive impact absorbed with flame retardants. Minor fractures and lacerations detected. Administering pain neutralizers to injury sites.”

The pain that had swept over Brock’s body was quickly driven back with mild euphoria. He collected himself with a few breaths and fought to climb back to his feet.

“Suit operating at sixty-four percent capacity. Force shield capacitors damaged. Absorbing future explosive blasts not recommended to maintain suit integrity.”

“No shit,” Charles said aloud while arching his back with a series of crackle sounds. He was hidden within the shadows of an alleyway, looking towards other insurgent soldiers converging upon his squadron’s position. He pulled further back into the darkness as Johnson’s voice crackled through his telewatch speaker.

“Brock? Brock, can you read me?” Henderson seemed anxious but unharmed.

“Yeah… I’m here. Shaken up, but mostly together.” Charles pulled his mouth close to the watch speaker to whisper and left a lipmark of blood. 

“Well… whatever the hell just happened… we’re in bad shape. Bear took the brunt of that and he’s a mess of parts. I’m okay and Johnson too, but he’s pinned behind a wall without much firepower.” A pause between speaking revealed the pops of gunfire through the speakers. “I’m going to transmit over coordinates to the Zenith signature. We’ll rendezvous there asap. If you get there before us… make sure the girl’s ready to fly.”

Charles’ eyes traveled with curiosity towards a large telescreen hanging along a nearby building as he transmitted his response. 

“Rendezvous objective confirmed. What about retreat protoco…” 

His voice stopped cold. On the telescreen he saw the head and shoulders of Olivia, alive and healthy, speaking muffled words he couldn’t hear through the commotion around him. He watched for a few mesmerized moments, trying to make sense of what her presence meant aboard the carrier ship.

“Brock? Brock, are you there? Please confirm,” Henderson called desperately through Brock’s watch intercom.

“I’m here,” Charles responded back, eyes still locked upon Olivia. “I’ll meet you at the Zenith as soon as I can.”

“Confirmed. See you soon. Over and out.”

Within the alleyway, Charles stood in place, his mind in a fog as Olivia continued to speak soundless words. The video on the telescreen then cut to a bearded man wearing a red suit, reciting his own silent pleasantries with a suspicious smile and a distrustful gaze. Brock’s eyes narrowed instinctively when appeared.

“Now who the hell is that jerk…”

At almost the same time, an insurgent soldier materialized a few yards ahead from the alley, facing away while loading his rifle. Thinking fast, Charles emerged from the darkness and quietly approached from behind before reaching his palm’s pulse rifle squarely against the soldier’s temple. He gasped and stiffened with surprise, dropping his rifle with a clik-clak.

“Make a fucking move and I’ll take your head off,” Brock sternly warned near the soldiers’ ear. “Matter of fact, the only way you’re leaving here alive is if you tell me where the girl on the telescreen is. She’s here on this ship maybe?”

“Princess Olivia?” The soldier asked. “She’s here, with Fenwick.”

“Fenwick? Is that the jerk-looking guy in the red suit?”

The soldier gulped and nodded. “Last I heard, they were making an appearance at the square.”

“The square. Point me in the right direction… slowly.” The soldier lifted his finger towards a group of buildings in the distance. “Not far behind those.”

“Much obliged,” Charles thanked before firing a light pulse to knock him out. The soldier dropped like a sack of flour to the ground. Charles stepped over him and began his journey to find Olivia.


The square offered a disappointing lack of clues as to Olivia’s whereabouts, and the scattered Martian civilians offered no further opportunities for questioning from their hiding places. Commander Brock kept his arms extended and pulse rifles primed as he serpentined between alleyways of buildings, knowing that a soldier could materialize in front of him at any moment. He stopped after a time within a recessed arched doorway to gather his thoughts and decide on his next move.

“Computer,” he began with a steadied voice to bring his suit’s communication system to life, “scan the immediate area within a thirty meter radius. Check for heat signatures, biological mass concentrations, anything.”

A few moments passed as calculations scrolled across his visor’s alert feed. “Shortwave proximity analysis complete. Cluster of organic radiation emissions confirmed within twenty-three meters. Sporadic movements suggest tactical safeguards against detection.”

“Take me there,” Charles instructed, prompting navigational arrows and meter readings to display themselves as guides within his visor. Soon after a maze of maneuvers, he found himself taking cover against a building’s corner edge, peeking out towards his mark some six yards away towards a nondescript apartment building. Two insurgent soldiers closely patrolled a doorway, looking to and fro for a short time before filing into the building.

Looks like they’re hiding something, Charles thought to himself while his suit performed various other scans and readouts. A chime from his telewatch interrupted his train of thought, causing him to curse through his teeth. What now, dammit?

“Brock? Commander Brock, do you read?” It was Sergeant Allen’s voice, stirring thoughts of worst-case scenarios in his head. He decided against an immediate response and waited for a report.

“Not sure if you’re predisposed, but we’ve lost contact with Johnson and Henderson. Confirming your status towards Zenith objective and possible rescue operation, over.”

Charles took a breath before whispering his response. “Rescue operation underway. Remain on standby for further reports.” He technically wasn’t lying. Returning his focus on the task at hand, his spotted another insurgent soldier uncloaking himself to follow the other two soldiers into the building. After a moment of realization, Charles’ eyes widened and he frantically turned back to his telewatch.

“Sergeant Allen, be advised. Deactivate graviton bridge as soon as possible. I repeat, deactivate bridge as soon as possible. Over.”

Allen’s voice was quick to follow-up. “Roger that, but why would we need to… oh no. Oh NO. Cordéz… BEHIND you! Where the fuck did–“

The transmission cut abruptly from this watch, leaving Charles in silence within the shadows of the building he leaned against. Gritting his teeth, he let a few expletives fly before turning his pleading eyes to the sky.

“Nothing. NOTHING has gone right. Not since…” 

Commander Brock’s eyes returned to the apartment building and who he assumed was waiting inside. He took a few breaths to calm his nerves before settling on a course of action.

“Computer. Run diagnostics and reevaluate status of battlesuit force shield capacitor.”

A few seconds of internal analysis returned a report. “Force shield generation capabilities confirmed. Integrity of suit under bombardment cannot be guaranteed and is not advised until full scope of damage is assessed.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Charles remarked, already standing within the shadow of the apartment complex. He lifted his palm and fired a pulse round to blast the door open, propelling shards of wood and foundation into the building as a rude hello. Bursts of gunfire welcomed him through the settling dust and debris, with his force shield staying true to its protective role, at least for the time being.

“Computer,” Charles calmly commanded as the onslaught of fire slid around his shield like an invisible fishbowl. “Commence Level 3 Pulse Devastation Strike.”

A rolling electromagnetic wave detonated outward from his suit, lifting the group of insurgent soldiers into the air before collectively slamming them into the ground. Commander Brock stepped inside the apartment complex to gaze upon his handiwork as his suit  chimed in. “Devastator Attack successful. Suit now operating at 52% capacity.”

Stepping around and between the collapsed, groaning bodies of insurgent soldiers, he scanned the apartment interior and noticed overturned furniture, a radio transmitter, and a large map pinned to an adjacent wall. To his left, a stairwell led to another floor. 

Upstairs, I bet, he quieted surmised. Commander Brock’s boots activated to propel him upward with a pulse burst to the top stair. His battlesuit’s sensors scanned and dismissed the various rooms before recognizing a pair of heat signatures hidden within the Master room’s closet. With a breath, he flung the door open to find a dazed-looking Olivia within the clutches of what looked to be Fenwick, who was holding the barrel of a pistol squarely against her temple.

“One more move and she’s dead,” Fenwick hastily declared as beads of sweat trickled down his forehead. “Just try me.”

Charles took a moment to consider the situation and an appropriate course of action. Before he could muster a response, however, an explosion was heard from somewhere in the distance, tipping the carrier ship with an impact that sent Olivia and Fenwick tumbling out the closet and crashing into Charles. The jumble of bodies slid to a thud against the adjacent wall, with the sound of a dropped pistol and two other loud thumps punctuating the mayhem within the room.

After shaking off the surprise, Charles turned his head to see a pair of toppled insurgent soldiers uncloaked from their own awkward collisions. With cold recognition, he realized they were likely trying to get the drop on him while Fenwick stalled his pursuit with a threat. Whatever caused the explosion couldn’t have been more timely, as it had likely saved his life.

Thinking quickly, Charles pushed Fenwick off of him with a grunt and stood to activate his boot gravitators, latching himself to the floor in time to balance himself against the carrier ship’s tip in the opposite direction. Fenwick and the soldiers slid away as Charles watched as Olivia fell atop the other prone bodies on her knees, blood now trickling down her temple. With both Fenwick and the soldiers seemingly knocked out or disoriented, Charles locked onto Olivia’s eyes while locking her hand within his.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” he declared with stoic determination. She didn’t react to him in the slightest, just looking back and forth from his hand to eyes. 

He lifted her to her feet, keeping her steady until the ship seemingly righted itself. 

“Olivia,” he prompted again, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” But this time he lead her from the room, her small hand grasped in his, and she followed silently but willingly.


Following Henderson’s coordinate signatures, Olivia was led through a maze of alleyways until their goal was finally in sight. Hiding between two buildings, Charles could see an exchange of gunfire from the carrier’s tether bridge linking to the Zenith, keeping insurgent soldiers at bay while they tried to make their approach. It seemed like someone had indeed beaten him to his ship, which seemed to provide a tremendous advantage or disadvantage, depending on his next move.

Charles took in the situation with a calculating eye before turning to Olivia with a look of apology. “This isn’t the ideal move, but perhaps the only one to get us out here. Stay close to me, Olivia.” Brock’s battlesuit shield then activated its seal around them both, and he set forth towards the tether bridge.

The pops and sputterings of insurgent gunfire temporarily subsided as they advanced before a pair of shots were successfully deflected by Brock’s shield. An insurgent officer then announced his order to all within earshot. “Halt your fire! I said HALT YOUR FIRE! That’s Princess Olivia! Do not engage! Do NOT engage!”

Within the arch of the tether tunnel was Henderson with his rifle, who’s mouth was agape at the events unfolding before him. “Brock! You’re alive! Boy, am I glad to see you. Where have you…” 

“Shut the hell up and get in the ship,” Charles commanded while guiding Olivia down the tether tunnel. “We’re getting the fuck out of here right now.”

Within the Zenith’s cockpit was Private Johnson working desperately underneath the primary console panel with an open toolbox by his side, and Andrea strapped to a chair making her typical snide remarks. Charles ignored them both for the moment and situated Olivia in a chair as Johnson slid out with amazement in his eyes. 

“Brock! What the hell…” Johnson turned his head to see Henderson’s arrival before shifting his attention back to the captain of the Zenith. “Brock. Listen to me. We’re pinned. Trapped in this ship. They’ve reconfigured Zenith’s systems so without the proper cipher framework, we won’t be able to…”

With an impatient wave of his hand, Commander Brock dismissed Johnson’s explanation of their predicament. He then turned his mouth upward and said aloud: “Zenith, administer protocol authorization refresh, code seven alpha niner. Assigned voice command Brock dash one point one.”

In the blink of an eye, the Zenith’s engines activated before it tore itself from the carrier’s tether towards the vastness of space.

Henderson stood in shock as Johnson tried to process what had just occurred. After a few moments he managed the question: “Where are we going?”

“Zenith’s last objective was Luna, so that’s where we’re headed now. We’ll talk more when I wake up.” And with that, Commander Brock collapsed to the floor from exhaustion.

Coming back to consciousness, the soft beep of a heart monitor clued Olivia that she was likely in the medical bay before she even opened her eyes. Taking her time to do so, her brain began racing through what memories she had of the last events. Suddenly, her eyes popped open, realizing she was no longer in the Martian supership, but rather on the Zenith. Her eyes scanned the room quickly, then. The medical white bulkheads blinded her slightly, but she confirmed that she was indeed on the Zenith. She looked down to her body, finding not a ruined wedding dress but the standard jumpsuit again. Her right arm was secured to a medical cuff that was cleaning her blood of whatever chemical Fenwick had given her, and was also making the beeping noises. 

To her left, she found Charles, in a similar situation, with exception that he was still passed out. Olivia wasn’t sure how either of them had ended up here in the medbay, but figured it was for the best for both of them. She checked the cuff as it played a little happy melody. An aggressive green smiley face appeared on the cuff and it read “Toxin Removal Complete” underneath. She selected a few buttons, and within a few seconds the cuff removed itself, and a small bandage stuck to the crook of her arm. 

She rose slowly, taking her time to be sure she didn’t get dizzy, but found her footing. Once she was up, her first move was over to Charles. “I’m really tired of being your damsel in distress,” she said in a light whisper as she reached, almost instinctively now, for his hand. “And I’m really not sure why you keep saving me,” she added, softer now, and let his warm hand go. She looked over at his medcuff and found it mostly was just treating him with fluids and electrolytes, nothing aggressive.

Deciding to let him rest more, she subconsciously brushed a strand of hair off his forehead and turned to leave to medbay. Before she left though, she found a pair of gravboots waiting for her, next to the chair she was in. She slid them on and looked at herself in the mirror above the sink in the wall. Olivia was aghast at what she saw. There were blood and makeup trails on her face, as well as, what looked like dust from an explosion on her face. She opened the faucet quickly, and rinsed her face with soap and water. 

Finally activating the door of the medbay, she exited with a scrubbed pink face. Oddly enough, she felt relatively at home on the ship, though she had only spent about a week on it previously Her heart panged though, thinking about the previous crew of the Zenith, making her think of the once welcoming and brave Amos. Olivia pushed the feeling away though, not allowing herself to get caught up in it as she walked alone to the cafeteria. 

“Oh look who decided to grace us with her presence,” a red headed woman stated sarcastically when she entered. Olivia bit her lip, almost embarrassed. Her brain reminded her though, as she filled up a coffee cup, that this was the same woman who called her a bitch earlier. Olivia re-took that note and began filling up her plate with some food without a word.

The redhead was sitting across from two male soldiers, silently eating, and seemed to be assigned to her. They sat at the main table, consisting of a long metal table that was attached to the floor, next to two matching long metal benches on either side. Olivia sat a distance from the redhead, opposite from the two soldiers. She glanced at their uniforms, finding the last names of Johnson and Henderson. Johnson nodded at her as she sat, and Henderson gave a grunt of acknowledgement. 

Nothing more than that was exchanged between the group. The redhead, her plate empty now, sat back against the wall on the farside of the table, tossing and spinning a silver butterknife in one of her hands. Suddenly, she spoke in Olivia’s direction, “So you’re the once-dead-princess who’s come back to life?”

Olivia felt her body go cold and still at the word ‘princess’. Her jaw tightened, attempting to hold back her anger for the term. “Don’t call me that,” she said as a response. The term made her think of Amos, and even then she hadn’t liked it. 

But the redhead, still tossing the knife and catching it, continued, “Seems like quite a bit of waste of time and energy was wasted for you, by both sides.”

“And you are?” Olivia spat, her eyes flashing, as she looked the woman up and down. 

“Andrea Lyall. Lieutenant colonel of the rebel Martian army, as well as lead interrogator . Well, at least I was,” the woman motioned towards the soldiers watching her. “Now I’m just a threat to Earth, apparently.” The knife flipped again a couple times, and Olivia turned back to her plate. 

Andrea, apparently bored, started up again though. “Though, now I see who we were all waiting for, I think it’s likely best I’m not exactly reporting for duty.”

Olivia turned toward her then, “Are you looking for a specific response, or just attempting to push buttons?” she asked with venom.

With a shrug, the knife continued flipping and Andrea raised an eyebrow. Henderson and Johnson were looking at each other then, both separately wondering if they should cut this conversation off.

Another moment passed, and Olivia started to turn back towards the table, but then Andrea said, “I think I just expected more from the great Martian leader, but it turns out we just have a little princess.”

At the word princess, Olivia was on her then. The butter knife had been in mid-air flip at the time, and she snatched it out of the air. She held Andrea by the throat against the wall, the knife pointed at it with her other hand. “Call me princess, one more time,” she threatened, her eyes in focused slits. 

A second later, one of the soldiers had jumped the table and pulled her off, and as her hand released, Andrea gasped a large breath in, coughing it out just as fast. 

“That’s enough,” the soldier behind her said gruffly. Olivia waved him away, “Fine, fine,” and sat back at her place setting.

Once Andrea had caught her breath, her hand still at her throat, she laughed, “That’s a little better.” 

Olivia locked eyes with her then, and there was a slicing sound next to Andrea’s ear as the butter knife suddenly was sticking half way out of the wall next to her ear. Andrea put her hands up in innocence, as well as if she had retracted her previous statement. 

Still angry, Olivia got up suddenly, taking her coffee, and stormed back to the medbay, without a word.

The door slid open with a soft woosh for her and she stepped into the room, pushing the button to close the door behind her. She walked back over to the sleeping soldier, his left arm now hanging off the side of the cot he laid on. 

Olivia still felt her blood boiling, the cup of coffee clutched to her chest. She scanned the room for a chair to sit in, but finding none, she just curled up on the floor, her back resting on the base of the side of Charles’ cot. She leaned her head back and let out a sigh as she pulled her legs in closer to her body. 

“I never wanted the title,” she announced to the empty room and the unconscious Charles. “I didn’t even want to marry Bryson at the time,” Olivia continued, “ but my father thought it would be the best for the security of our family at the time. She took a sip of coffee then, and she rested her head gently against the hand hanging off the cot. 

“Then the war came, and the siege of Mars. We saw the writing on the wall, and went into hiding. And then the desert.” She was silent for another moment, thinking, “I think that’s why I stayed there for so long. Because I didn’t want to be the one in charge. I just wanted to not be,” she paused, “I didn’t want to be me.”

“And then of course you came along,” another pause, then a realization, “Why does everyone feel the need to drug me to get me to do what they want?” A huff of laughter left her chest then, shaking her head. “Can no one respect my personal boundaries and that I know what’s best for me? Of course not, I’m a young woman and we don’t know better.

“So now we’re going to just bring me to Earth?” she questioned. “Do you intend to just bring me to your superiors with a bow and let them do as they please?

“I’m not sure that’s exactly your style, though,” she continued. “But then what are you doing with Andrea?” Olivia paused, “She’s not exactly a peach, by the way. And I may have accidentally choked her out, threatened her with a knife, and then threw said knife at her head…” she trailed off. 

Olivia set the cup down then, the magnetic bottom activating and sticking to the floor of the medbay. She closed her eyes and mumbled, “Maybe I’m not exactly a peach either.”

The sound of distant gunfire was there. Perhaps it was always there, timeless and ageless in the silent infinity of Brock’s mind. The struggle for survival against small metallic projectiles fired at blazing velocities, meant to penetrate organs, flesh, souls… how could something so small be such a devastating force across the ages? As bad as the mosquito delivering its hellish diseases without discrimination or purpose to entire continents of hapless victims… perhaps even moreso. The poet’s metaphor of the sword had certainly been displaced by two inches of cylindrical, steel-cased death.

The gunfire became clearer though, amidst its own orchestra of constance, and now sounded more like… keystrokes? Keystrokes. A flowing stream of keystrokes, similar to those heard from the Zenith consoles. Two thousand of them? No… no. Much, much more than two thousand. The keystrokes stretched onward and outward into the absolute void, accompanied by feelings of restlessness and exhaustion… impatience. Desperate eagerness for the deed to be done. To satiate the one who would ask for them.

The context of feelings never did make sense, and perhaps that wasn’t their purpose. Andrea didn’t make sense either, even as her presence pulled from the void, with her burning hair and piercing eyes, wearing nothing but a slight trace of lingerie, beckoning Brock forth from the confusion of sounds and feelings that resolutely resisted comprehension. He could feel her yearning for him to be close, pressed against her pale freckled skin, locked in a lover’s embrace, deep inside. She yearned for his release.

“Come… come to me, Brock.” Andrea spoke with an unmoving mouth, arms outstretched. “Come inside.”

Brock took an eternal moment to heed her offer before his eyes narrowed and his lips seethed. “Fuck you.”

“That’s the idea, Brock. Just give yourself up, give yourself to me.” And then the searing pain returned in his mind, piercing his resistance, tearing it to pieces. He felt himself collapse to a floor that may or may not have been there, and curled into a fetal position, helpless and alone against Andrea’s sickening persistence.

“Leave me alone,” he whimpered, before gathering strength for a proper outburst. “LEAVE. ME. ALONE.”

And then once more emphatic push, fighting through the overwhelming pain…



Alone. Brock was alone when we woke up on the Zenith’s medibed, with a medical cuff latched to his right arm. Or at least he seemed to be alone at first. He lifted his back from the medibed as the sound of reluctant vinyl peeled itself away. Brock then emptied his lungs with a whooshing exhale and turned his head with the sound of an audibly loud crick. His eyes then found Olivia, hearing the last bit of her speaking… something about peaches.

“Well hello there,” he managed with a dry, creaky voice as his hand found its way to his neck. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Um,” she said softy, her hand instantly going to her scuffle-tousled hair, “hi there.” Olivia was slightly pink in the face, unsure of everything he had potentially heard.

Brock closed his eyes and nodded while pulling a smile. He sensed that Olivia had been speaking for some time, but couldn’t pull any comprehension through his still reeling mind. He eventually settled on a question: “What’s uh… what’s been going on with everyone on the ship?”

“Well,” she said matter-of-fact-ly and then paused. Her head tilted then, like she was attempting some math. She turned on her rear then, the floor squeaking beneath her to face him. “I think I choked out your girlfriend?” she said, unsure that the relationship math she had done was correct.

Brock’s eyes remained closed, though it was clearly visible that an aspect of Olivia’s report didn’t settle well against his ears. “Uhm. Did you say… girlfriend?” His eyes opened with his left eyebrow at odds with his right. “Who the hell is my girlfriend?”

“The redheaded Martian?” she questioned then, her eyes direct with his, wondering if he needed to lay back down for awhile. “There’s like three other people on the ship, Charles, and the other two are men, c’mon.”  Olivia picked up her bulb of coffee then, with a slight huff to pull it hard enough to de-magnetize.

“Redheaded…?” The slow realization pulled into his eyes, and Charles fought off a massive urge to lay right back into bed. “Andrea.” There was a slight seethe to the name as it was said aloud, and a shudder across his shoulders suggested its own distaste. He took a moment to collect his thoughts and locked his gaze upon Olivia’s own. “Can you relay this message to Henderson… for him to execute her, please? We can jettison her body and be done with that ticking time bomb, once and for all.”

“I mean, she doesn’t exactly have a winning personality, but you don’t exactly need to kill her,” Olivia said, rising from the floor to stand beside him. “I take it if you want her killed she’s not your girlfriend then and it is less bad that I held her against a wall by her neck and threatened her with a dull knife then?” She paused for a moment, “Well, at least that’s settled.”

“Get to know her a little more. You’ll want to kill her too. Trust me.” Brock was quietly pleased with Olivia’s recounting of the knife against Andrea’s neck, though he would fight against resonating that satisfaction. Still seated, he straightened his back to be more level with the now standing Olivia, and snorted his amusement when he found himself almost eye-level. “Your personality is much taller than your actual height,” Brock said aloud before reflecting on the awkwardness of his own statement with instant regret. He eventually shrugged it off with a roll of his eyes. “You know what the hell I mean. Give me a break. I just woke up.”

“We can’t all be chemically engineered anomalies grown at full G,” she said pointedly, raising an eyebrow.  But, she was silent after that, unsure of where everything stood between them. If you has asked Olivia a week ago, she would have ranked Charles as one of her potential adversaries, but now, he seemed like one of the only people in the solar system she could trust.

It was strange to Brock that this particular moment felt like the closest he ever was with Olivia, emotionally speaking. It seemed in his mind that he should feel uncomfortable, or uncertain, or exhilarated… but the God-honest truth was, he was too exhausted to feel much of anything. His body’s aches had settled in once more, with burns and lacerations pulsing their painful reminders. He looked down at his legs and realized he was still in his battlesuit, now deactivated, and a yearning for normality crept its priority above all else.

“I need out of this suit,” Charles said while lifting himself slowly to his feet. “And a shower, and some aspirin, and some time in a rejuvenation tank, and a peach…” He turned to face Olivia with a look of seriousness. “I’ve decided to make you second in command of this ship. Can you keep everything under control until I’m ready to address the crew?”

At the mention of a peach, her head quirked up at him, the blush rising back in her cheeks, but at his mention of second in command, her eyes grew in disbelief. With a slight unsure whimper, her words came fast, “Um, I mean… I guess? As it seems you don’t seem to care if I kill Andrea if I need to.” 

Her fingers fiddled with the bottom her her braid absently, and before she even thought about it she heard the words tumble out of her mouth, “Do you need any help? Wi-with the suit I mean?” An awkward pause again, “Like, um, do you need me to unzip it? Does it have a zipper?” By the end of her last question, she was almost bright red in the face. “What the fuck, Olivia?” she intoned to herself.

A smirk was stifled as Charles politely waved off Olivia’s offer. He then found a button hidden under a seam running across his chest and pressed it, immediately resulting in the sound of released air, and his battlesuit visibly offered more slack across his torso. He then tugged along the same seam which eventually revealed the sight of his shoulder. “I’ll uh, need some privacy,” he remarked with more request over command in his voice. “We’ll reconvene later and have a more thorough meeting about how things currently stand in the ship, and make the appropriate plans.”

“Um, yes,” she said hurriedly, and almost ran from the med bay of her own embarrassment. After gathering herself outside the closed door for a moment, she made her way to the bridge of the ship. Upon her arrival, she found Andrea, bound to a chair once again, as well as Johnson and Henderson in the Captain and Co-Captain seats, chatting quietly. Knowing full well that she didn’t know how to fly a space ship, she quietly sat herself in the seat she had originally been strapped into upon their departure from the supership.

The sound of bootsteps preceded Commander Brock’s arrival at the bridge of Zenith. He now looked crisp and clean-shaven with slicked hair and sharp eyes, which was a profound shift of appearance from how he arrived on the ship with Olivia at his side. His captain’s fatigues boasted the emblem and colors of the Bloodhawks, with red vinyl gloves topping off the ensemble. He scanned the bridge with quiet eyes, allowing his makeshift crew to realize his presence one by one as conversations were interrupted and tasks were postponed. The collective group stayed quiet, apparently eager to hear what he had to say.

“Well then,” he said with some levity, “we sure got our asses kicked back there.”

A few snickers found their way across his ears, but it wasn’t long until a specific someone piped up.

“Damn straight,” Andrea declared in agreement, forcing everyone’s attention. “But it looks like you came out okay in the end. I must say, looking pretty damn delicious there, Commander.” She topped off her rambling with a cat call and an exaggerated wink.

Commander Brock would not react to Andrea’s provocation, instead turning his attention to Henderson and Johnson. “How’s Zenith flying?”

“Pretty well, I’d say,” Johnson responded while holding a wrench in his hand. “Racing off towards Luna according to coordinate readouts. I tried to implement a command override to see if we could alter her course, since we weren’t sure when you’d be waking up to talk the helm, but…” His shrug suggested he wasn’t successful in that particular task.

Olivia was unable to hide the grimace her face made as Andrea referred to Charles as delicious, though she kept her gaze forward until the look faded from her face. Then, she turned to face Charles, “What exactly is the plan on going to Luna? Or is that where we’re dropping this monstrosity off?” she motioned at Andrea.

“You won’t need to intervene anymore with her internal mechanics,” Brock declared to Johnson with finality in his voice. “She’ll respond just fine to my commands now that I’m here.” 

Then to address Olivia’s question: “I’d just as soon have her jettisoned from the ship, but maybe we can make a democratic decision about her fate.” He then turned to the rest of the group to ask, “What shall we do with this nuisance? Keep in mind she’d surely slice our throats given the chance.”

Olivia piped up then, wary of the democratic rule of the Earthers. She didn’t like Andrea in the slightest, but she couldn’t condone popping her out an airlock on a whim. “Now, now, you can’t just kill her as you please. I’m not sure what the morals of you Earthers are, but that seems quite uncouth. Shouldn’t we leave her with some Earth…er…” she searched for the Earth term, but couldn’t identify it, “Some Earth justice system on Luna, or an outpost?” 

She paused for a second, then held her hand up to continue again before anyone else spoke, “Also, why? I agree she isn’t the slightest bit pleasant but that doesn’t mean she’s done something wrong either. Is this because she’s a Martian?”

“Yeah, is that why you’re being so hostile towards me, Captain?” There was a gleeful tone in Andrea’s insinuation as she reinforced Olivia’s sentiment. Commander Brock narrowed his eyes slightly towards her before addressing the question presented to him. “I have my reasons, Olivia. And might I remind you, you’re Martian as well. I hope it’s clear that I don’t harbor spite towards Martians simply because of their heritage.”

“How about we ship her off to the Mate Exchange?” Henderson presented for consideration. “She looks good enough to keep one of our lonely soldiers happy.” His cheeks then pulled a toothy grin across his lips. “Maybe with a disclaimer or a warning, since yeah… she’s kind of a bitch.”

“Oh please,” Andrea groaned with a roll of her eyes, “no normal Earthen soldier could handle me. I think everyone here understands that Brock and I were meant to be, even if you refuse to admit it out loud.” Another disturbing smile couldn’t be ignored on her face, prompting an impatient exhale from Commander Brock’s nostrils.

“I’m so glad you felt the need to remind me of the planet you kidnapped me from,” she quirked quickly at Charles, “How soon us silly women forget.” She glared at him sourly, then continued, “Its not like I’ve found myself suddenly pardoned by the Earth government either. And if your plans are not to bring her to Luna, it implies that they are to bring me there. Perhaps to this Mate Exchange that,” Olivia searched for his name patch, “That Henderson mentions.” 

Olivia turned to Henderson, ignoring Andrea entirely, “Could you be a doll and remind the silly, forgetful, Martian women what that is again?”

“Oh, just uhm… think of a vending machine full of women for our brave soldiers to choose from. Assigned lifemates, if you will.” Henderson nudged Johnson in the ribs which prompted a laugh before he continued. “Of course, they better be prepared to spread and bear, if you catch my drift. Part of the deal to get out of the labor camps.”

“That’s enough, Henderson,” Charles sternly professed before stepping back to address the entire group. “As captain, I’ve decided to end the debate and make the decision towards Andrea’s fate myself.” Then with an eye towards Olivia, “I will humanely place a stay on Andrea’s execution and allow the Earthen courts to make that call. I hope that comes across as a fair compromise.”

Olivia’s face darkened to a shade of red hot anger that the group before her had not seen the likes of before. Silently, she attempted to collect herself, finding it difficult to give much care to the rest of Andrea’s fate. It seemed as if the Captain Charles had left that tid-bit out of the equation. And now, with most of the Earth army knowing her face, she found it highly unlikely that she would be allowed to just live out a peaceful life. 

As Charles left the bridge, Olivia hotly followed him. Andrea read the room and said, “Go get him, tiger” as she left, with a hearty laugh. “Shut the fuck up,” Olivia returned hotly. 

The door slid shut behind her and she didn’t even wait for him to turn around. “You’ve got to be out of your god damned mind if you think you’re putting me up for some breeding catalog!” Her head barely rose past his chest, but as he turned, her pointer finger was outstretched angrily towards his pectorals, and she was staring up at him with fire in her eyes.

Brock took Olivia’s outburst in stride, allowing the point of her finger to press firmly against his chest without the bat of an eye. 

“Corporal, if you please,” Charles said calmly and politely while offering Olivia a walk to his quarters with an extended arm. “You have concerns, and that’s understandable. I’ll be very happy to address them, so let’s sit in my office and chat.” Once within the privacy of his cabin, Brock situated himself at his desk, squaring his shoulders and elbows to directly face Olivia.

“Now then,” Brock began slowly, “I don’t recall mentioning your requirement to submit to a ‘breeding catalog’ when I previously explained Luna’s labor communities. One must understand that Earth has a wide variety programs in place under various fragmented commands… some more appealing and advantageous than others, I’ll admit.” He stopped himself there to encourage Olivia to continue with her apprehensions, with a look of genuine benevolence in his eyes.

With the petulance of a child, Olivia stomped beside him to his quarters, ignoring his giving her a new title. Upon entrance to his office area, she declined his offer to sit, as per her usual, and began to pace as she spoke. “Why are you all,” she lowered her voice to imitate him, “‘We have to follow all the rules’ now that we’re talking about my fate, but as we talked about Andrea’s you were willing to just throw her out an air lock and call it a day?” 

She did not pause for his response, but instead continued without breath, “It clearly has little import to you, but I neither want to help perpetuate the ranks of Earther soldiers nor participate in a slavers scheme for assisting the army who helped cull my planet. Why do I only have those as my options?” As she stopped to look at him, her tense shoulders faced him as her hand gripped the back of the offered seat. Her steel eyes, now only mostly smoldering in anger, met his. “I’m tired of being drugged to comply and being told what to do by soldiers playing at a war I had no hand in.”

He waited for the proverbial dust to settle, listening closely and intently to Olivia’s tirade before she seemed ready to allow a response. Commander Brock then took in a breath and spoke.

“You have my sincerest apologies for forcing you off of Mars. In retrospect, I should have let you be, for both our sakes.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Perhaps it’s time to ask you directly, in lieu of my prior mistake: what would you like to do, and where would you like to go from here? I will do everything in my power to make it happen. You have my solemn word.”

He then shifted in his seat to address the other matter at hand. “As for Andrea… I promised I wouldn’t see to her end, and I meant it. But I have my reasons to place her somewhere to be closely guarded. As bad as the Mate Exchange sounds,” he explained hesitantly, “it’s one of the better outlets to see to her integration into Earth society while under a vigilant eye.”

“Charles,” she tried, softer then, “Stop playing politician with me. I had enough time with Fenwick, I don’t need it from you.” Olivia folded herself into the chair then, her legs pulled in tight to her body. 

“I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want either of those thing. And no matter what you say, the “mate exchange” is misogynistic nonsense to put a price on women’s looks to be paid for in risk-of-death for Earth soldiers. Which brings me to my other question: What did Andrea do to call for such ranker and confines?”  Olivia’s arms crossed her chest, as if pulling herself in would make her exist less.

Charles rushed in behind Kelyn, taking his place over her shoulder while the most curious expression plastered itself all over his face.  He must have looked like a dog given orders by two different masters. One part of his being desperately wanted to hoist Kelyn up by the armpits and pin her against the nearby wall to demand answers while boring holes into her eyes with his merciless gaze. The other part knew that the momentum they had acquired was escalating towards some of break in the case which had

Commander Brock drummed his fingers on his desk, collecting his thoughts on how to express his answer. He then settled on a direct, succinct approach:

“I was held captive and tortured relentlessly. For days… weeks?..” He shrugged his soldiers, not sure exactly how long his ordeal lasted.

“She used some kind of remote,” he explained further, surprised at his own willingness to provide more details. “It affected the implant in my brain. I kept it to submit to ETSI so they can study how it works and make the necessary widespread modifications, so that it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Brock pulled a wry smile and tilted his head in introspective reflection. “I suppose that’s why I suggested executing her. I mean, part of me was being facetious, but…” He squared his shoulders and reintroduced a calm seriousness to his voice. “I hope I’ve made it very clear that she is a very dangerous, unpredictable individual. Please exercise the necessary precautions in her presence.”

“We did it,” she said softly pushing back just a bit from his computer to bend over and take a deep breath. Her hands were shaking. “The video. Whatever Jill Diaz was into, I think her video caused the Olivia unfolded before him then, her hand reaching out to place on his now folded hands, “Charles, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” She clasped her fingers around his top hand and squeezed slightly. “How are you doing? Is there anything I can do?” she asked as she leaned against the desk, kneeling slightly. Their eyes met for a moment, and then Olivia pulled away, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep.”

“I’m fine,” Brock said with as much reassurance as he could muster. “Fine, really.” He responded to Olivia’s squeeze with one in kind, not expecting a split-second spasm of pain to jolt through his brain afterward… he sincerely hoped Olivia didn’t somehow notice his twitch.

“I guess we have some important decisions to make,” he said aloud to divert away from the intimacy of the moment. “I hope you’re not uncomfortable with your promotion. It’s just a title for ranking’s sake. I don’t except you to conscript to the Earthen army.”

She got to her feet then and said quickly, attempting to disguise any overt-kindness she had offered the Earther, “I’d be happy to be your XO, if you still want me. Especially with the non-conscription caveat.” 

Olivia gave him a small smile before heading towards the door, “I think, that may be the thing I want to do for now. I don’t know how to fly a ship though, and you already broke me of referring to you as commander, so I’m not sure I can start that back up again.” 

Moving to hit the open button of the door, she paused, hovering over it. “If you need anything,” she paused for a moment, “They’re not the same, our traumas, but if I can help, please tell me. The dreams are the worst for me.” 

She pressed the button then, and before he could say anything the door had slid shut behind her. Olivia wondered why she had admitted that to him as she walked back to what used to be her room. 

Just as she reached the door before hers, she saw blast marks in the wall. She slowed, her hand reaching up with a finger to touch it softly, vowing to stop being a damsel and start being able to save herself. A tear came to her eye and she brushed it away, pushing past the first door to hers. 

She flopped into the less-than-luxury blankets and pillow with a contented-ness she hadn’t expected to have upon the Zenith. Her mind wandered from Amos to Charles and Andrea then. But before she could speculate much, sleep enveloped her exhausted body.

Once Olivia left his cabin, a frown pulled itself upon his face as the introspective inadequacies crept once again into his mind. A captain is never, ever allowed to show weakness, especially to his executives. Your personal confessions expose your vulnerability and undermine your authority on your ship. Charles closed his eyes and expelled a sigh before shifting the monitor’s view of his console to the blackness of space which expanded infinitely in every direction outside the ship. The calm nothingness somehow eased his mind, and he allowed himself to soak within a thoughtless void.

Some time passed before he was reluctantly tugged back to reality. His eyes affixed themselves upon his intercom transceiver for a blank period before using it to call the Zenith bridge.

“Johnson and Henderson. Would you report to my cabin for debriefing please?” A moment of thought would promptly add the addendum, “Make absolutely sure Andrea is securely fastened and restrained before you arrive. Thank you.”

Before long both members of Outpost E7-G were in his cabin, casually seated yet attentive. “All righty, sir, where should we start?” Johnson offered with rolling thumbs in his lap.

“Hm… I suppose I don’t need a play by play, but a documentation of losses and casualties would help in regards to Operation Zenith.” Charles rested his forearms upon his desk with a pair of curious eyes.

“Welllll…” Johnson dragged his response before Henderson interrupted. “Corporal Bear, Private Cordéz, and Sergeant Allen are all KIA. Johnson sustained an injury which I patched after the Zenith had made its escape.”

“Allen and Cordéz…” Charles repeated under his breath as if to imply his prior knowledge of their fates. “There was an explosion that shifted the carrier ship…?”

“Once Andrea was removed from the Tracker, it initiated a countdown for self-destruction. Call it a measure of last resort in case the operation was a complete failure.” Henderson sighed his disappointment while Johnson offered an open-palmed shrug.

“Yes, Andrea was retrieved by the insurgents… then how the hell did she?” Charles stopped his inquiry short as the look of Henderson’s and Johnson’s faces fully understood his direction.

“Craziest thing. She fought off her rescue team and rushed into the Zenith as Henderson was securing his position at the tether gateway. I saw her enter the ship while I was trying to bypass the insurgent’s overrides… she locked herself into a chair and smiled at me before asking where YOU happened to be.”

Commander Brock’s eyes narrowed briefly before he sat back into his chair with folded arms across his chest. “Well then. Save for our final escape, I suppose we were fucked in every way imaginable on that mission.”

“Mmm… maybe. Maybe not.” The segue from Johnson drew Commander Brock’s interested eyes, prompting a further explanation. “During the combat encounter, I managed to commandeer an armor plate from a fallen insurgent soldier… one that happened to materialize from thin air. I took some time to analyze it after Zenith’s escape and I believe it to offer major clues towards applying their cloaking technology towards our own purposes.”

Commander Brock leaned forward with visible intrigue. “You’re telling me that we may be able to replicate that advantage ourselves for field application?” Johnson nodded, and Brock smirked his satisfaction.

“Well done, gentlemen. We may have lost that battle, but perhaps this development will help Earth win the war.” Brock paused for a brief moment of consideration. “The fact that Mars insurgents were able to develop that technology against us… it’s frightening. They’re certainly more formidable than the military command has given them credit for.”

“To be honest sir,” Johnson observed, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they stole it from our labs and applied it in combat before we could.” Brock nodded his understanding and sat back in his chair once more.

“This could be helpful to us as a unit as well, if you were able to get that armor plate functioning here. I’d like for it to help Olivia reach a secure location of her choosing.”

Johnson nodded hesitantly before speaking up on the matter. “If I may ask, captain… why such support for a Mars woman? She is technically an enemy of Earth, after all…”

Brock’s eyes glazed briefly in thought before his answer. “You know, Johnson… I haven’t the foggiest. But I figure the sooner she’s out of my hair, the better… perhaps for my own sake of clear-thinking as well.” He then stood from his chair as a signal that the meeting was ending. “We’ll discuss the option with her when she wakes up. Until then, continue your analysis on the armor plate. I’ll schedule an all-hands meeting for the near future.” And with that, the two squad members were dismissed from Brock’s cabin.

Sitting up out of a cold-sweat inducing dream, Olivia grasped at her chest, attempting to catch her breath. Once caught, she slowly laid back down onto the pillow, but upon finding it slightly damp with sweat, she grumbled and flipped it to the other side. Tentatively, she shut her eyes again, trying to go back to sleep. But they slammed right back open upon seeing the dead and open eyes of Amos, this time, his head covered in his own blood. With a halted sob, Olivia sat back up, throwing her legs over the side of the bed. 

She pulled the blanket around her, comforted by its warmth, as she contemplated why Amos’ death had bothered her so much. She had seen death in the desert. The death of her own brother and parents, no less. You had dreams after they died too, she reminded herself as she put her head in her hands. Silent tears ran down her cheeks as she made the mistake of closing her eyes again. A flash of red, reminiscent of the full dream. Olivia shook her head and pulled the blanket around her tighter. 

Using her feet, she scooted her gravboots closer to her, then slid each foot in their respective shoe. After locking them on with a blanket covered hand, she checked the time for the shuttle. They were in the sleep cycle, so it was likely no one would be up and about. Olivia rose, blanket still wrapped around her, opened her door, and wandered into the hallway. 

She avoided looking at the ammunition mark in the wall as she made her way to the only place she could think of wanting to go: the mess hall. With some fumbling of her blanket, she made herself a small cup of decaf coffee, with hope she would be able to return to sleep.

As she exited the kitchen-esc area and moved to the seating area, Olivia jumped, almost spilling her coffee. “Ch-Charles?! Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked, her tone accusatory. But after a second, she could tell that he looked exhausted too. 

“Have you even slept?” she asked as she joined him, sitting across the large table from him.

Brock’s eyes did have bags underneath them, though less prominent since his time in the rejuvenation tank. He reacted in surprise to Olivia’s surprise, then opened his mouth to respond to her question before a passing Henderson interrupted him.

“Woo-wee! Love that just-out-of-bed look,” he remarked with a wink towards Olivia in a cat-call manner. “If you need some tips on how to knock yourself out, do let me know. I got a ton of ’em.” He paused in mock reflection with a thumb to his chin as if he was considering something. “They say a warm body beside you is the perfect thing. If you’d like a volunteer…” Henderson’s voice trailed off suggestively as a grin spread across his face.

“That’s enough, Henderson,” Brock commanded, prompted him to continue past with a quiet complaint, “Just tryna help!” He then turned to Olivia and smiled warmly. “I’ll get to some sleep soon enough. Looks like you are lacking in that department as well.”

Henderson’s appearance surprised Olivia as well, causing her to jump. She worried if as he past he was going to attempt to touch her, but he didn’t make a pass. She relaxed a bit, looking back to Charles as she did so. 

“Dreams,” she said to him, slightly under her breath, knowing full well he would understand. “Every time I close my eyes now, I see…” she cut herself off abruptly, shaking her head and inhaling. 

“Sorry,” she said then, “I shouldn’t complain.” The silent tears that hadn’t really left her eyes since she had woke up fell then, and she looked away from Charles.

Brock frowned as he watched a tear slide down Olivia’s cheek, unsure of what to say to comfort her. He decided instead to shift his approach and try to lift her spirits with some good news. “Olivia… I was going to save this for later but… Johnson may have found something. A way for you to bypass Luna and start fresh somewhere else. Anywhere, really.” A quiet gaze studied her reaction carefully as he bit into his peach.

With a sniffle, Olivia attempted to switch gears, listening to Charles. Hesitantly, she softly spoke, “I don’t know where I’d go.” She didn’t say anything else after that as she avoided meeting his gaze. She didn’t understand how one minute she was second in command, and the next moment he was essentially pushing her off the ship. She would be well provided for, which he didn’t have to do, and he wasn’t bringing her to the slave camps at Luna, so Olivia supposed she should be grateful. Feeling a small stab of uncertainty in her chest, her hand went to it absently under the blanket.

Brock’s sigh was a mix of exasperation and empathy. “I’m so bad at this sort of thing,” he was heard muttering to himself, before continuing with, “you’re free to stay on the Zenith for as long as you like. We’re in the middle of a planetary war so places of refuge are regrettably limited.” He allowed a pregnant pause to settle between, shifting forward in his seat while steadying his voice.

“I feel like I failed you back there,” Brock admitted with slow emphasis, his eyes immersed in past events. “When the insurgents took this ship. I failed and thus, your life was put at risk.”

Johnson waited in the wings for a pause from Brock’s speaking before reporting before him. “Captain, still haven’t managed radio contact to anyone due to the insurgent’s tampering, but I’ve retrieved the backlog of messages while Zenith was captured. I’ve made them available on the console server for your review.”

Brock looked up to Johnson from his seat and nodded his appreciation before turning his attention back to Olivia. “Would you mind joining me in my cabin to have a hear-see?”

Nothing much came out of Olivia’s mouth as he spoke of failing her. Contemplating her response allowed a silent Johnson to surprise her with his own speech. It also slowed Olivia’s initial reaction of once again grabbing the commander’s hand. She further questioned herself as she didn’t direct her attention to Johnson, but Charles’ face. She took in his brooding dark brown eyes and the faded scar on the left side of his face. How did that happen? she mused to herself, then found he was talking to her.

“Of course,” she answered, a little too fast. They both rose and Olivia gathered her drink, as well as her blanket, and they headed to his cabin. Olivia’s blanket trailed behind her, making the view of the two of them a bit comical. She heard the snicker of Johnson as they walked away. 

Once in his chambers, Olivia curled into her usual seat, then jokingly added, gesturing at herself, “I just don’t understand why no one takes me seriously.”

Charles smirked at Olivia’s comment while seating himself at his desk chair, swiveling it forward to face Olivia. He allowed himself to relax his shoulders against it before settling a smile upon her. “For what it’s worth, I take you seriously.” His remark floated a bit between them before he continued with a slight pull of concern upon his face. “Johnson and Henderson though… I don’t know. They’re Earthen soldiers and I don’t have any overt concerns about them. But the way they look at you on occasion…and especially Henderson’s earlier comment…” His palms opened upon his desk towards Olivia as if to offer an apology. “I guess us Earthen men should undergo some internal rewiring in terms of how we treat the fairer sex.”

“in light of these potential concerns…” Commander Brock would then press a button upon his desk console, which reintroduced Olivia to the Murphy-style cot hinged across his cabin wall, the same one she saw what seemed like ages ago. “The offer still stands if you’d like to make my quarters your personal domicile. I promise I’m a light sleeper and…” Brock would gesture across the room to his own bed, as if to imply the distance should quell any apprehensive thoughts Olivia might have about him.

“Any any rate…” Brock would nervously pivot from his offer and turn his attention to the matter at hand. “Let’s see what Earth has to say in regards to the Zenith’s sudden disappearance.” He turned on the speaker on his console intercom and sat back while prompting the latent radio messages to play.

“Zenith? Zenith, do you read? We’ve received your distress beacon and our assumption is you are under attack. Please verify, over.” The Earthen voice was concerned and calm, playing crystal clear with a slight crackle distortion.

“Zenith? Zenith do you copy? Ship readings suggest you’ve been overrun. Rescue protocols will commence shortly with a fleet of recon ships. If you read, hang in there as best you can. Help is on the way. Over.”

The Earthen voice then receded to a variety of overlapping radio transmissions that did not address the Zenith ship directly, yet painted their own disturbing picture. “Zenith ship located and locked on, rescue commencing… oh shit… oh shit. Where the fuck did THAT come from?! Incoming fire, activate shields! Oh God, they’re everywhere! Stay on target, Private, stay on target. They’ve obliterated Jackson! There’s no—“

And then, silence. Brock shifted his eyes to Olivia with a look of sullen surprise. “Looks like we were lucky, after all. A few of us made off with the Zenith, alive.”

Taking a sip out of the cup she had brought from the mess hall, considering his thoughts. “Do you really think it would be something they would attempt? Even Hicks didn’t…” she trailed off, but knew that he would be considerably more unsure about these men than Hicks was his man, these soldiers weren’t. But, Charles took her silence, she assumed, as a denial and continued on. 

Listening to the first of the transmissions, she wondered if they had to be concerned about another Earther ship coming to find them, but upon listening to the second set, she realized the Martian Rebels had set up a similar bait-and-switch tactic to when they had been caught before. The silence grew between them as Olivia looked away and the images of dead soldiers flashed behind her eyes. 

“They were your men,” she said, knowing that though they had never really spoken of the incident, he would know what she was talking about. “That day…I-I’m sorry.” Her eyes were back on him then, looking for solace? Sadness? Something. Again, her hand was on his, squeezing, the blanket falling from around her shoulders haphazardly. 

“Amos saved me that day. I think if I had been out and about, they wouldn’t have known to not to kill me. I was even in-,” she motions to her body, “I was even in a jumpsuit.” Looking back up at him she continued, “He locked me up in the other holding cell. He stood outside the door like he was guarding me.” Olivia’s tear filled eyes appeared more blue as she looked away again, into her lap, “Always the damsel, I suppose.” Brushing a tear away, “I swear I don’t normally cry this much, but I-I just,” she shook her head, “I just saw his body, the eyes wide open, and how they just pushed him aside… And I just had to pretend like I didn’t even know he existed.”

Suddenly, Olivia wiped her tears, looking up at him, “I am so sorry, you had to endure so much more than that and lose your men. I shouldn’t have even said anything,” scolding, to herself, she added, “Why do I have to be so selfish?”

Charles listened and absorbed, not reacting to Olivia’s emotional release but maintaining a look of empathy on his face. The look would shift to reassurance when she posed her self-critical question as he offered his open palms. “What matters is that we’re here now, making the most of this mess. Keep your eyes forward, let go of the past. What’s done is done.”

“In fact,” Brock continued, settling into his chair with a breath, “the thought of what happened to my squad fueled my escape from the insurgent compound on Mars. Without that… push, I’d probably be still there now, dead or otherwise.” His eyes would shift as it to relive those past moments with reluctance before finding Olivia once more. “I guess what I’m trying to say is, we don’t have to allow their deaths to be in vain. Let’s make the most of what lies ahead, in honor and remembrance of them.”

A slight, strange smile found itself upon Brock’s face as he thought more upon Olivia’s confessions. “Another thing… don’t put a self-imposed cap on your emotions now. It’s a nice balance against something I struggle with myself. You may have noticed that the ability to express myself isn’t one of my strongest traits.”

With his palms outstretched to her, she released the blanket from around her shoulders to take both of his hands. The warmth of his hands tightened around her cold fingers as he attempted to encourage her. 

“You don’t say,” she said with a halting laugh, leftover tears running from her eyes. He allowed one of her hands to release so she could wipe them away, but she returned the hand quickly back. “Is that the top job qualification to be your XO?” she asked jokingly, “The ability to cry at everything?”

Olivia got up from the chair then, releasing his hands. She let the blanket fall behind her, revealing the top half of her jumpsuit tied off around her waist and a white undershirt with the arms cut off covering her torso. Grabbing her decaf coffee, she sat against what would be the headboard area of Charles’ bed, crossing her legs in front of her. 

Looking down into her cup she said, “I don’t know how much I need to really worry about Henderson or Johnson, but I do know how much my dreams scare me.” She paused for a moment, her hand absently stroking the side of the coffee cup with one finger, before she met his eyes again, “But if you could be here, when I have them, I think that could help.”

Brock swiveled his chair to keep within eyeshot of Olivia, quietly taking in her lighthearted observations. He left the question about Henderson and Johnson alone, not wanting to stir any more doubts about their integrity. Her final comments seemed to indirectly address his previous offer, prompting a soft nod of satisfaction.

“I’m here for whatever you need,” Brock said aloud, then cleared his throat and shifted in his seat at how his own words sounded in context. “Er, at any rate. I was thinking about holding an all-hands meeting this evening, but I think what we all really need at this stage is some much-deserved rest.” He chewed on his cheek a bit while thinking before continuing with a question. “Have you tried our rejuvenation tanks? State of the art, guaranteed to make you feel much better. An uncommon luxury on this class of ship,” he would add to further promote his suggestion. “A sound body helps for a sound mind.”

Laughing awkwardly at his awkwardness, Olivia brushed a strand of hair out of her face and considered his offer. “I don’t really trust that Earther tech,” she said honestly. “I think just good old-fashioned sleep will do just fine,” she added as she set the now empty cup beside the bed. She took up the blanket on the bed then, moving to lay her head on the pillow. 

Silently, and subconsciously at first, she took in the musky male smell of the pillow and blankets. The overt scent of Charles that she had found quasi-comforting before the loss of the Zenith. But now, she didn’t realize how much she had missed it until she drank it in silently. It was a mix of some standard-issue deodorant and sweat, she was sure, but knew it was distinctly his smell. 

She peeked an eye open to see if he was watching her then, or if he had turned back to his desk.

Casually and wordlessly, Charles watched as Olivia settled upon his mattress before lifting himself from his chair. He approached the side of the bed, gently motioning her to roll away with a place of his palm on her hip, before climbing in behind to spoon her, sculpting his body against her contours. His warm breathing found its way against the back of her neck, his muscles announcing their trust with a collective relaxation.

“It’s been a strange, tough time,” he softly stated near her ear in between warm gusts. “But we’re making it, and we’ll make it.”

Before long, the rise and fall of Brock’s chest against Olivia’s back accompanied heavy pulls of breath, signaling his descent into sleep.

Surprised by his advance towards her as her eyes opened, Olivia stifled a slight gasp. She was further surprised when he gently moved her over and tucked in behind her. Finding herself folding back to match his body as he matched hers, she felt his stubble tickle the side of her face. 

His breath on the nape of her neck roused something deep within her that hadn’t been stirred in years, but she pushed it back down. She felt the outline of his strong body against her back, her hand trailing his forearms that held her around the waist. 

Soon, Olivia found herself matching his deep breaths, lulling herself to sleep as well, feeling much safer than she had in a really long time.

There were dreams and rumors of dreams, all playing their relentless reels upon the screen of Commander Brock’s subconscious. He woke up without remembering any of them, though their potent impressions lingered even after his eyes blinked their return to reality. His arm was draped across Olivia’s waist, with the sound of sleep evident through her nostrils, and their warmths pooled together to an almost uncomfortable degree of heat. He reluctantly withdrew his arm and carefully maneuvered himself to a sitting position on the side of the bed, keeping Olivia’s disturbance to a minimum. After his mind cleared itself further, he sat himself upon his desk chair, facing his bedmate with a slow swivel to ensure minimal noise.

Brock would quietly watch Olivia as a longing filled his chest, burning embers of desire that dare not breach themselves into the forbidden realm of lust. She had thus far been receptive to him, which fed the pointless demands of his ego, but it was ultimately supplanted by a determination to maintain and nurture the trust he had earned. Of course, reason would have its say within his mind, reminding him to observe recent developments with a practical, skeptical eye. He allowed himself, however, to enjoy the feeling of peace that accompanied their newfound closeness.

Eventually, Olivia stirred upon his bed, and Charles waited with a warm smile to greet her arrival back into the conscious world. “Well hello there, sleepyhead,” he offered warmly, readying his legs for a lift from his chair. “Ready for some breakfast?”

Her body tossed and turned slightly as her body nudged her sleeping mind awake. But as she woke, she noticed the body that had been beside her was gone. Her eyes slid open to find him watching him from the chair of his desk. She patted where he had been laying gently, calling him back to her, but also finding the side cool to the touch, his warmth had left her quite a bit before. 

“Come back,” she said almost in a whisper as she patted the bed, ignoring his question intentionally. Sleepily, she yawned and stretched a bit, the bottom of the undershirt rising to show her hip and stomach as she did so. 

She watched as he neared her with a slight hesitancy now, where he had been confident in the hours before. Nonetheless, he still laid himself upon the bed, facing her now, and not touching her. 

Olivia did not break their invisible barrier, but rather observed it respectfully. Her arm rested upon the crook of her stomach and her hand rested upon her hip, a finger moving in a circular motion upon the fabric there. Her sleep flushed face was raised towards him, eyes flashing impishly as she inquired softly, “How did you sleep?”

“Oh, you know. Crazy dreams that I don’t remember one lick about.” The faint trace of warmth could be felt through Brock’s exhales, his eyes peeking upwards towards Olivia’s face as he rested the side of his face once again upon his pillow. “Rarely do I remember anything specific from my dreams. Guess I’m lucky.”

Charles would stretch himself with a pull of his shoulders, squinting his eyes with effort alongside a soft grunt. His limbs resettled themselves, the distance between them now closed by a left shin pressing its warmth against Olivia’s leg. 

“And you? Pleasant dreams I hope? Or none at all would work too, right?”A slight pull of smile offered consolation towards Olivia’s response.

“None it all, this time, thankfully,” she answered softly as she noted the touch of his leg on hers.  After a beat of silence, as Oliva thought of ways she could artfully put her body closer to his, she raised a hand and traced the scar along his face gently and asked, “Where did this come from?”

Brock smirked slightly at her question, his eyes drifting for a fleeting moment to recall the incident and gather an explanation. “Training accident,” he revealed through an exhale. “A small piece of shrapnel got me good during an intense drill. I guess I was lucky that it missed my eye.” Another soft laughed surfaced through his lips before he continued. “I ignored the pain and completed the exercise before reporting to my commanding officer. He yelled at me in shock… something like, ‘Corporal, something is sticking out of your fucking face!’ I think I earned a fair amount of respect points that day. As a matter of fact, it probably propelled my quick climb in ranks.” Brock’s hand found itself upon Olivia’s, gently clasping it within his fingers.

She laughed and shook her head at him, “You seem to be quite a tool, even for an Earther.” She looked down at her hand in his, fiddling with his thumb. 

“What’s going to happen when we get to Luna?” she asked, seemingly out of no where. “Are you really going to leave Andrea there? What is Luna even like?”

Brock would sigh again at Olivia’s questions, this time with a twinge of exasperation. “I’ll see what I can do with her that is fair and humane while getting her out of my hair. She makes me nervous… her unpredictable nature is what’s doing it, I guess. I’ll be immensely relieved when I can dust my hands and stare her a silent goodbye.” His teeth would noticeably clench for a moment at the thought.

“As for Luna…” Brock continued, seemingly relieved at the opportunity for a segue. “It’s mostly a port planet, with daily launches and arrivals. Plenty of repair facilities. The work done at the labor communities revolves around ship repair.” There was instant regret in his eyes after the explanation, not wanting to imply the fate for Olivia. “The days are strange… no atmosphere, so the sky is always dark with the blinding sun during the day. Rarely is anyone ‘outside’… there’s a network of buildings, corridors and tunnels connecting everything together.” He let his description settle on Olivia’s ears before adding, “There’s what we call dayrooms on Luna… areas that simulate Earth with plants and gardens and a blue sky to look up towards. It helps with keeping your mind stable, since everywhere else looks pretty bland and sterile.”

Noting his sigh, she frowned slightly, feeling like she had ruined the moment they were having then. She squeezed his hand, “I’m sorry I brought it up, I just -” she stopped, unsure. “I guess I just don’t know what lies ahead and it scares me.” 

Her eyes closed then, leaning into the pillow, slightly embarrassed.  “I never left Mars before you swept me up, drugged I might add, into this ship,” she said into the pillow, looking up at him pointedly at the word ‘drugged’. 

“So I’m scared and curious, but mostly hesitant. What happens if we get there and they want a crew manifest, and there I am? Delivered straight into Earther hands.” 

She looked at his somewhat disappointed face then, and said, “I know,  we’re making it. We’ll make it,” repeating his whispered words from the night before. Olivia let all pretenses drop then, and suddenly pulled in close to him, hiding her face in his collarbone as she wrapped her arm around him and pull him tight to her.

A swarm of butterfiles would invade Brock’s stomach as Olivia pulled herself close against him. He would pull his pinned left arm from between them and rest the nook of his elbow upon her lower waist, scratching gently up and down her back with his fingernails. 

“We will be fine. We will figure this out.” There was no doubt in his voice, only a keen determination.

After a short time, Charles would think aloud towards Olivia, his hand still tracing softly along her spine. “You know… that cloaking tech might come in handy. You know, to keep you hidden from prying eyes. Maybe long enough until we find a suitable opportunity for you to integrate seamlessly into Luna.” He followed shortly thereafter with a disclaimer: “Just an idea. Ultimately, we will decide our plan of action together.”

She enjoyed his touch and his warmth. His hand moving up and down was mesmerizing to her still sleepy mind. His breath rising and falling on her exposed neck softly. She wondered how long it had been since she had been in such a position with a man, and she knew easily, never with an Earther. 

“The suit could work…” she said trailing off. After a moment she added, “But you keep mentioning ways for me to leave you. Leave the ship. I wouldn’t be here,” she finally looked up him the , to solidify her point, “With you, like this, if I was interested in leaving.”

Brock’s chest would pull a solemn sigh, resonating a self reflection or perhaps, a self criticism. “I don’t mean to imply that I want you to leave. I just want what’s best for you… and that I’m willing to let you go, if it had to come to that.” He then laughed at himself, finding Olivia’s eyes through a snicker. “I guess I don’t want to come across as clingy, you know? I’m sure us Earthen soldiers have reputations on Mars… not very good ones, I’m sure. And now you know about the Mate Exchange…” Brock’s exhale indicated uncertainty in his thoughts. “I guess our culture really isn’t the best at cultivating healthy attitudes. Sometimes I wonder if I come across as a monster, to both Martians and normal Earthers alike.”

“Earthers definitely don’t come off as clingy,” she told him wryly. But their now locked eyes made Olivia blush further. Absently, her eyes diverted of their own accord to his lips and back up. 

She chewed slightly on her bottom lip, and said, her voice a little huskier than she intended, “And you definitely don’t come across as a monster to me.” Her hand curled up his back, her fingers dancing down his back muscles. 

Their faces slowly gravitated toward each other, Olivia playing against his lips slightly, teasing him by moving at the last second. His hand had moved up to tangle in her hair and as he held her firmly, he moved to finally place his lips on hers and-“Commander Brock? I think there’s something you should take a look at,” was heard over the intercom system into his room. 

A small bubble of a giggle fell from Olivia’s lips at the situation, knowing he would have to answer the call.

Brock’s bottom lip quivered at Olivia’s tease, and he was moments away in his mind’s eye from a panting entwinement of their limbs. The rude interruption of his intercom would halt their imminent embrace, prompting an exhale of frustration to escape his lungs. A few moments to collect his dizzied mind would precede a terse response to Johnson’s request. “Be right there.”

Sitting up on the side of the bed, Brock ran his fingers to untousle his hair before turning to Olivia behind me. “You stay right there. I won’t be long.” The tone of his request was playful, with the slight color of a captain’s order. He would find his arms into his captain’s jacket while leaving his cabin, passing one more glance towards the woman in his bed before the automated door cut off his line of sight.

Making his way to the bridge of the Zenith, Brock would find Henderson was tending to a task on his telepad while Johnson sat patiently on the floor near the main ship console, with an opened toolbox suggesting he had been hard at work. He was playing with some kind of mechanical piece between the fingers of his right hand, and would stand to attention when Brock appeared through the doorway.

“Well, Private,” Brock would inquire with the faint remnants of fluster still present in his voice. “What is it?”

“Mornin’, sir,” Johnson would offer as a quick bypass of pleasantries. “You won’t be happy with what I found hidden within Zenith’s chassis.” He lifted his hand to present the object in question.

Brock studied it briefly with squinted eyes. “What is it?” he finally asked after a quiet effort to discern its significance.

“Tracking device,” Johnson declared with a sobering nod of certainty. “Those sneaky insurgent bastards thoroughly bugged this ship. I thought I got ’em all before we escaped, but…” His eyes pulled to the floor in silent disappointment.

Upon hearing Johnson’s revelation, Brock’s blood momentarily ran cold. “You mean they’re following us?”

“That I’m not so sure about,” Johnson answered. “Nothing showing up on radar. Of course they could purposely be staying out of our range until they’re ready to make a move.”

“It’s removed now, so they’ll lose sight of our trajectory…?” Brock posed the observation out loud, which Johnson dismissed with a shake of his head.

“By now they know where we’re going. I suppose we could alter our course, but that might only force their hand into an attack we’re probably not prepared for.”

Brock snorted his displeasure. “Well then. What can we do? Hope to make it to Luna before we’re blown to smithereens?”

At Brock’s concerns, Johnson couldn’t fight a smile sifting to the surface of his face. “Not quite. Remember that cloaking tech? I managed to reverse engineer it from the armor plate I salvaged.” He squared his shoulders before continuing his explanation. “Beyond applying it to our battlesuits, I bet it’s just as applicable to the ship as a whole. Give me a little time and let’s see if Zenith can make a disappearing act, so to speak.”

Brock sat back in his heels for a long moment, visibly relieved and satisfied with Johnson’s proposal. “You think it can throw off their tracking instruments?”

“It’s very likely, captain. Of course, the tech works both ways. We’d fall off the face of existence to our own control centers as well. We’d be an invisible entity flying through the space ether. We wouldn’t be able to radio out, and they wouldn’t be able to radio us.”

“That’s a small risk considering the alternative,” Brock contemplated aloud. He then folded his arms behind his back to bring their discussion to a close. “Make it so, Private. And keep me posted with prompt reports.” A pair of salutes were exchanged before Brock made his way to the cafeteria for a peach before thoughts of Olivia flooded his mind once more.

Falling to her back with her laugh, Olivia sighed upon the pillows, watching as Charles righted himself before leaving the door. Even with his assurance that he would be back soon, she knew he was one to easily get lost in a task, especially for the Zenith. After a few moments of gathering herself, she also left the room, leaving the mess of blankets where they were, intent of returning to them. 

As it seemed it was her habit now, she made her way to the mess hall, in search of, of course, coffee. As she made the steaming cup of caffeine, she thought back to the night before, and the morning. Always cautious and courteous, Charles had a way of bringing Olivia out of herself. As if she wanted to supply him with all the reasons to keep her around, rather than making him find them out for himself, as she usually would have. Olivia was not one to make a first move, let alone accept a man’s open offer to sleep in his bed. 

But, in a daze, she imagined Charles siding up behind her then, his lips on her neck, whispering how he wanted to see her out of this jumpsuit. She could almost feel his arms reaching around her, pulling her in closer to him as he reached a hand past the tied arms of her jumpsuit as they hid behind the rows of dishes between the food prep area and the dining hall.

Ding! the coffee spout yelled at her, surprising her out of her day dream. With a shake of her head, the thoughts of the feeling of his roughened skin on hers disappeared. 

Olivia collected her coffee and moved to one of the larger, more comfy chairs she could curl up in. She brought her gravbooted feet in towards her, resting her cup on her knees. 

“You’re rosy this morning,” came a voice from a few seats beside her. It was then that she spotted an alert Andrea sitting under an unlit overhead light, still restrained, but with some food in front of her. Olivia quickly noted she was only allotted a spoon, rather than the knife and fork she had been given previously, but decided to not rise to her comment with a response. She sat quietly and blew across the top of her cup, as if she hadn’t heard her.

“Rosy in the cheeks indeed,” Andrea continued, ensuring those within earshot would partake in her taunting analysis. “Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you enjoyed yourself a morning romp. Lucky you.” She lifted a spoonful of food to her mouth with the slight amount of slack allowed by her tethered shackles, chewing through a smile with playfully accusatory eyes. 

“Was it the Captain?” she questioned with a lower voice, sneaking peeks around as if trying to keep the matter discrete. “I mean, process of elimination, ya know… I don’t blame you. Getting Chuck’s rocks off would likely help you out in the long run.” She sighed after a gulp of orange juice, setting her gaze on Olivia once again. “Just don’t soften him too much, y’know? Don’t undo the progress we had when I was alone with him.”

The red in Olivia’s cheeks quickly surpassed rosy and were on their way to enraged as she sat quietly, waiting for her coffee to cool and contemplating what to say to Andrea. However, at the mention of Andrea being alone with him, Olivia’s head swiveled towards the woman with malice in her eyes. 

Though she knew she was being goaded into action, Olivia longed to pick up the spoon and toss it out of reach of the woman, as well as “accidently” knocking over her beverage. Nothing too aggressive, just enough to be annoying. However, she knew that was Andrea’s game. 

“What is your goal in this, Andrea?” Olivia asked, directly. “Are you trying to get me to hurt you? Would you like that pain?” Olivia’s tone was deadly, then, a slow, threatening voice that came over her as her muscles seemed to ready themselves for attack. Her heartbeat steadied and the flush from her cheeks receded. 

“Have you always been a masochist, or did that come with the job?” she asked, point blank, her eyes appearing as if it were the most boring subject in the world as she returned her gaze to her cup. She wanted to get closer to the woman, sit across from her and analyse her, but she knew that wouldn’t have been a good idea with the slack in her restraints.

Andrea sighed and rolled her eyes while settling back into her chair. “Oh, I could delve into the gritty details of my unhappy… horrific childhood, but we’ve already slept enough this morning. Or, I guess I have.” Her gaze resettled upon towards Olivia, her body still relaxed… almost inviting. “I guess my goal in all of this is to satisfy my power complex. You surely see the weariness in Chuck’s eyes despite this?” Andrea raised her shackled hands to illustrate her point. 

“I’m a prisoner here, and I still have control. The Captain’s had ample opportunities to get rid of me in one way or another, and he hasn’t. He wouldn’t dare. Why?” Andrea shrugged at her own question but seemed ready with an answer. “He likes us strong-willed types… you and I both. Also, with fair skin and on the shorter side? Money in the bank. I mean, you already know.” Her exaggerated wink sealed her implication.

“Not sure what happened in there…” Andrea continued with a low voice alongside disingenuous intentions. “But, uhm. Pent up guy like Chuck? Probably didn’t last very long his first time, much to your dismay. No worries though… second rounds are always much more fun.” She smiled and nodded with reassurance. “Hang in there, Captain’s toy.”

As Andrea spoke, Olivia could feel her muscles tensing to attack even further. Her grip on the coffee cup, though severely white knuckled, allowed her something to focus on as she attempted to not react to Andrea’s vicious words hidden in a playful tone. Outwardly, her eyes rolled dully at the comparison between the two of them, but it was as if Andrea had seen her dream, getting to the heart of her own personal fears in a snap. 

She didn’t care about the sexual innuendo though, but once she was called Charles’ toy, the cup of coffee hit the ground suddenly. With a swiftness she hadn’t utilized in a long time, Olivia was headed towards the table Andrea sat at, once again aiming for her neck. 

However, before she could even take two steps, she was restrained by two thin muscular arms. “Woah, girl,” she heard behind her in a low drawl. Fucking Henderson, she thought to herself as she pulled at him roughly but as she tried to pull away, she knew it was better if she didn’t jump Andrea for a second time. 

After a moment, Olivia said, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” and Henderson released her slowly. Locking eyes with Andrea, as tugged on the bottom of the white tee that had risen slightly to show her midriff, she said, “Look, I don’t give a single fuck about what you think has occurred between Captain Brock and me, but I will tell you now,” she took a threatening step towards Andrea, “There is nothing similar between us. So you may be a toy, to some unlucky son of a bitch somewhere, but I am not. Nor, will I be.”

As Olivia reached to pick up the spilled coffee, she longed to chuck the metal container at Andrea’s head, knowing she wouldn’t be able to block it with her hands being restrained, but she took a deep breath instead, and headed back to the kitchen area to refill it. 

Waiting on her second cup, she heard Charles’ voice in response to something Henderson had said but couldn’t make out. But by the time she looked in that direction, all she saw was a singular Charles headed towards her. “What was that about?” she questioned quietly, now knowing Andrea was within earshot.

“None it all, this time, thankfully,” she answered softly as she noted the touch of his leg on hers.  After a beat of silence, as Oliva thought of ways she could artfully put her body closer to his, she raised a hand and traced the scar along his face gently and asked, “Where did this come from?”

Charles would position himself as a shield to block the eyesights between Olivia and Andrea, absentmindedly rearranging sugar packets while addressing her question. “Henderson decided he wanted to share a few choice words and press a few buttons. I pressed the final button to put him back in place.” 

A quick glance towards Andrea preceded a heavy sigh. “And speaking of button pushing…” Brock would face Olivia with the sturdy purpose of a commanding Captain. “I cannot allow altercations on this ship, between crew members and prisoners or otherwise.” His voice was firm but exculpatory, with eyes that almost betrayed his own demands. 

“Just stay away from her, don’t listen to a thing she says,” he pleaded quietly. “She’s trouble for both of us. We’ll get rid of her just as soon as we can.”

“My ears are burning,” Andrea called out towards the pair, with a sing-songy declaration. “I just know you two are talking about me. Oh what to do, what to do with the woman who calls things as they are? Oh my, does the truth ever hurt on this ship.” She smiled apologetically with a soft shoulder shrug. “I guess strange cir-cum-stances lead to strange bedfellows…” Her own emphasis on cum sent Andrea into hysterics. *You’re two attractive people,” she reasoned aloud after collecting herself from her fit. “Just keep fucking and stop trying to keep it a secret from us. We’re not children on this ship, are we?” 

Johnson watched the entire exchange silently while Henderson stood behind him, grumbling under his breath with folded arms. “Perks of being an officer I suppose,” he may have been heard to say.

Olivia was surprised by the words coming out of Charles’ mouth, even though his eyes seem to be telling her the opposite. Her jaw still clenched though, and it clenched further as Andrea started her antagonizing again. Both of her hands opened and pushed away at hip level, as if to get her to stop, showing her frustration to him silently, “I didn’t exactly go looking for her, Charles.” Her voice was as low as it could be, and seemed somewhat perturbed with him, as well as Andrea and the situation. 

She passed Johnson and Henderson without a word, also ignoring their own commentary. Olivia was somewhat thankful that there were only three other individuals besides herself and Charles on the cruiser. It could have been much worse. 

Before she even thought about it, she found herself at Charles’ room, rather than her own. “Shit,” she muttered to herself and instead of having to pass the cafeteria again, she just slammed her palm on the button to open it and huffed inside, now also angry with herself. She dropped into the chair behind his desk and began spinning in it absently, as she replayed the previous scenes in her head.

A few minutes would pass before Charles appeared at his cabin door, visibly surprised to see Olivia situated upon his chair. There was a slight reluctance to his step as he entered his own quarters, his gaze suggesting that he was in the process of bracing himself. Before she could speak, however, he lifted a finger to delay her.

“I promise you’ll get your opportunity to tear into me,” he assured her while moving to sit upon the edge of his desk. “Just hear me out first.”

An exhale pushed its way through Brock’s nostrils before he continued. “Andrea has my number. I’ll admit it. She dominated me while I was in captivity and is trying to prove a point with our roles now reversed. I’m guessing her twisted mind sees me as some kind of pet project.” His palms opened themselves as an offering of concession.

“And now she’s working on you, trying to get your number. She’ll poke and prod from every conceivable angle until she pulls a reaction out of you. You have to understand that, and you have to understand that you cannot give in. If she stirs your pot and ruffles your feathers, she wins. No matter what you’re able to do to her. Get me?”

Brock sat quietly with a moment of thought before settling on an idea. “I know it’s not easy for either of us. If I have to cordon her off, quarantine her, seal her off inside a soundproof booth, I’ll do it for both our sakes and sanities. Just give me the word and I’ll have Johnson and Henderson tend to those arrangements.” 

A shift of his rear upon the desk signaled the end of his spiel. “Okay, then. Let me have it,” he offered through a breath with eyes closed and tensed muscles.

While the tone of the message frustrated her, she knew the content to be true. Olivia knew the first time she heard Andrea’s voice that she couldn’t listen to her, but it was literally this woman’s profession to get under people’s skin. The only way she was going to get through it was not even listening. And if they could think of some strategy to make that happen, they could all make it to Luna in one piece. 

She looked at him, finally stopping the spin in her chair. She still stayed silent though, as she rose to reach him, watching his brow furrow at her lack of response. Olivia simultaneously slid her hand around the back of Charles’ neck and placed her lips on his. She felt his slight jump of surprise below her at the touch, but then she felt him relax into her touch.

For a few fervid moments, it felt as thought Charles’ heart would burst in his chest. The kiss was so sudden that his mind was still catching up to the moment, but his arms instinctively wrapped around Olivia, one across the small of her back and the other along her spine. His inexperienced lips opened to allow for tongue, and the initial contact coursed a spasm of lust throughout his body. Their hot breaths mixed to create an intoxicating medley within his mouth, one which he savored with a shuddery sigh.

Once his body and mind course corrected through the concentrated fever of desire, he directed Olivia towards his bed with hands on her hips, their lips still locked in embrace. Slowly, carefully, Charles guided her onto her back while maneuvering above to comfortably distribute his weight. He sucked greedily on Olivia’s lower lip while positioning his loins gently upon hers, his excitement evident. Eventually, regrettably, he pulled his lips away to take her in with his eyes, his breathing heavy and ragged.

“Wow,” Charles managed with a smile before a thick swallow, locking his gaze upon Olivia. “Just… wow.”

She wasn’t sure when they had made it to the bed, but as he pulled his lips away from her, she was happy to have the pillow to lay her head back on as she closed her eyes with a laugh. Then she realized, “I didn’t realize it was your first kiss, too,” and her eyes were wide, looking at him. 

“Oh you poor things. Why do they do that to you? It just doesn’t make any sense,” she reached out and slid her pointer finger around his shoulder and bicep, shaking her head slightly and rolling to face him. 

As he started to answer though, she leaned in and let her lips waver above his and whispered, barely audible, “You’ll have them put her in a sound proof area with a tray slot. Then she can not even need to leave it. That is how we don’t even have to deal with her issues. Done. Let’s not talk about it anymore.” She smiled then, and pulled his bottom lip into her mouth, trying to tease him into kissing her again.

“Done,” Charles agreed through a raspy breath before partaking again upon Olivia’s lips. He then gently relaxed his weight upon her while slyly moving his lips towards her neck. A proper spot was found and claimed before Charles clamped a gentle bite, while his hand pinned Olivia’s wrist against the bed. A dry whisper then found its way towards her ear, “If this is too much, let me know.”

As he bit down on the gentle slope between her neck and shoulder, Olivia gave a soft groan. Her hips pressed against his ground into him a bit deeper, as her fingers clasped tighter on his shoulder. 

It was then that he took that arm and put it over her head. She gave a faux tug to check if he would let it go. He didn’t. “It’s not,” she said on a breath beside his ear. 

She felt her other wrist get swept up and placed into his one large hand. Olivia wriggled against him more then, testing her restraint further. She felt the bottom of her shirt rising once again, but figured this may have been his intention. What he likely did not intend was the way her breasts pushed up and together just below his lips at her neck. 

From this position, she watched as he leaned back to take her in. “Hi,” she whispered, biting the left side of her lip after she finished speaking.

The urge to remove his shirt was almost overwhelming, but Charles managed to repress it while admiring the curves and contours of the woman who seemed a willing prisoner. His left hand meandered across Olivia’s mid-drift and slid under her shirt to find her left breast for a firm squeeze. The soft feel of skin was intoxicating, as was the excited nub of nipple that found itself gently nudged between his fingers.

“Hello there,” Charles returned with a heavy pant. An involuntary buck of his hips pressed his loins further against Olivia’s warmth, prompting a sharp whimper. Losing himself in the moment, his body began to gently rock alongside the rhythmic squeaks of mattress that filled the silence around them. He savored the spasmic pulses of excitement…

Olivia fought the instinct of pulling her hands from his grasp as he pinched her nipple playfully. She wanted to take the back of his head and guide his mouth to the light pink nub. As she picture it was when he seemed to lose control a little, his hips pushing into hers with a motion that she found erotic. She watched his eyes as they scrunched together in a mix of pleasure and what she assumed to be a slight confusion at the new feeling to him. 

She slowed her own hips against his then, and he looked up at her with concern. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I promise,” she said as they stopped a bit, his hand holding her wrist releasing slightly. She slid the hands from his grip and put them on his shoulders, pushing him gently to his back on the bed. 

“This is all just…” she thought for a moment, “Just really fast I think.” Her hand moved to his cheek then, and she kissed him for a few moments. When she pulled away she said, “And now that I slow down a bit, I just think back to all of that,” she motioned to the kitchen, “And how nothing has happened and the three of them are in three separate uproars for different reasons. And what happens when we get on Luna, do you think Johnson and Henderson are just going to nicely keep their mouths shut about the Martian Rebel leader on the ship? And if you decide to pick up new crew, what will they say?” 

She shook her head again and laid on her back beside him with a huff. “I’m not opposed to doing this,” Olivia gestured between them, “but I think there have to be some conversations and plans.” With a slightly awkward laugh she added, “That’s assuming your plan isn’t to actually fuck me and leave me on Luna with Andrea at that god awful mate thing you Earthers have.”

In a strange way, even amidst the heavy exchanges between them and the fog of lust in his mind, Charles was relieved. He was trained through and through as a soldier, and losing control to his primal instincts was a foreign endeavor to him. Leadership and control, that’s what Captains do. Giving an inch quickly becomes a mile. The words of advice from his officer’s training rang in his head, helping him to collect his composure and level his breathing, even with the delightful sight of a submissive Olivia upon his bed.

“I’d never allow such a thing,” Charles said in response to Olivia’s concern. “And for the record, we were about to make love, not fuck.” He rolled his eyes and sighed at his own pitiful attempt at levity before continuing.

 “Andrea is the one I fear the most,” Charles admitted as he loosening his grasp upon Olivia’s wrist. “She’ll surely toy and harass us at every opportunity. And she really does know too much.” He closed his eyes in thought while running his fingertips along the length of Olivia’s arm.

“We should register you there… yeah. As a nameless Martian refugee of course. Change your look a bit too…” He posited his ideas with a receptive smile, knowing Olivia would likely object.

“As far as Johnson and Henderson… I have faith in reaching an understanding with them to keep our little ‘secret.’ They may him and haw to me, of course, but their respect for authority runs deep. Us Earthen soldiers are trained that way.” His fingers found their way to Olivia’s armpit, giving a little tickle before pulling away.

She shook her head at him, ignoring his tickling and  his ideas of changing her appearance for a moment. “I think you’re wrong on this point. No one will listen to her about that on a non-Martian planet. Is she more dangerous, surely, but not based on her knowing I’m here. Johnson and Henderson though,” she paused, “They’re only under your authority as long as they stay on the ship. What happens if someone of authority happens along later down the road?” There was another pause as she grimaced, “I think the best way to prevent that would be to keep them on the ship, I suppose.” 

In typical Olivia fashion, she trudged on, “As to registering me, that’s all fine and dandy, but you have to have a reason to keep me on your ship. I haven’t exactly heard of Earth recruiting Martians into the service. We literally ran from that,” she pointed at her brain, referencing the Liquid, among other devices the Earth government had put into their conscripted men, as well as the occasional woman. “You can dress me up as you like, but no one is going to believe that I’m an Earther either, or a complicit Martian,” she gave him an eye then, advising him that she was not going to put up with any double entendres on her complicity.

She cuddled into his side then, putting her head on his chest and bit the skin around the top of her fingernail. Her hair splayed out like an oil spill behind her. “How long until we get to Luna? How long do we have to figure this out?” she asked, still chewing her thumb. “I think we drop off Ms. Bad-Attitude, encourage the ‘sons to stay on board, and pick up some actual crew to keep the ship running as normal. I just don’t know what we do about me…” she trailed off with a soft sigh and looked back up at him, hoping he had a better answer this time.

A look of admiration swept over Charles’ face as he watched Olivia intently, absorbing her analyses and suggestions with thoughtful consideration. A clear head, it seemed, was the key to looking at a situation subjectively, and he silently admitted to himself that Andrea has infiltrated the pragmatism of his decision-making. Charles draped his arm around Olivia in response to her pulling close, letting her breath’s vapor collect on his collarbone.

“Enough time,” he remarked to dispel any concerns of a deadline. “Andrea will be dishonorably discharged from our lives into a pair of watchful hands that could contain her. As far as the ‘sons, I have some weight I can throw around to assign them towards my new squadron. That leaves three or four more slots to fill…” A heavy exhale from his chest implied a wish that Olivia could satisfy one of those slots… and then a stiffening of his body preceded his following suggestion.

“If you were to register as a General Duty Worksman, I could possibly push some buttons to have you assigned to my ship. However…” Charles’ breath caught against his throat before he continued. “You’d have to pledge allegiance to the Earth federation as a refugee to obtain an offland work visa. If that is something you’d rather not do, tell me now and I’ll never propose anything of the sort again.”

“While I understand the thought of your idea,” Olivia began with a laugh, “I don’t think there is an ice water’s chance in hell of me pledge allegiance to anyone.” She raised an eyebrow at him and then went back to her resting place on his chest, once again chewing her thumb. 

It was quiet for a while then, as Olivia brainstormed. She wrestled with the fact that no matter what they did, they would have to convince a group of Earth soldiers that a Martian woman wasn’t a threat, or a plaything. And, if any of this crew were to disembark from the ship, they could be potential threats, especially if they could identify her. 

She looked up to see if Charles hadn’t gone back to sleep, and finding his eyes open, she hesitantly said, “I can’t believe I’m about to say this,” she shook her head and laid it back down once again. 

“What if I went into the misogynistic mess you Earthers call a Mate Exchange and I became your,” she paused, “I guess, mate?” She faked a gagging sound at the prospect of the whole program. “Would I be able to stay on the ship, and not shipped off to some Earther community for impregnating women?” 

Before Charles could answer though, she looked back at him again, her words quickly spilling out,  “I hate this idea, for the record, and I am fully aware it is very presumptuous of me.”

After his initial look of surprise, Charles thought on Olivia’s suggestion for a bit, giving her a squeeze with his arms to indicate his applause at her courage and forethought. “It… is a good idea,” he pulled through his pursed lips as he eyes still rolled themselves in contemplation. “It’s a different story if I were enlisted, but as an officer… I have more pull and say on my lifestyle choices, so to speak. You’d have to request me specifically once you submit to the registry, and I’d have to honor your request within a certain timeframe before you are relinquished to the general pool of candidates.” A firm gaze from Charles into Olivia’s eyes seemed to seal the deal on that matter.

“Then there’s the matter of you staying with me on this ship.” Charles reflected once more on the matter before offering a solution. “Once you’re, ah… claimed, I’ll have delegative authority on where you are stationed. If you pass a few aptitude tests, I’m sure you’ll be able to earn a license as a ship crewman or an officer’s attendant.” He smiled a bit at his own explanation while giving Olivia another squeeze. “I can give you some specialized training here to make sure you pass with flying colors, if you’re willing to treat me as a teacher.”

His hand scratched lovingly up and down Olivia’s back as he added a final disclaimer. “Once we’re contractually bonded as mates in the eyes of the Earth federation… any acts you perform would reflect on behalf of both of us. You’d essentially be an extension of my conduct as an officer… for better or…” Charles stopped himself before finishing the vow-like thought. “You’d also have to make absolutely sure you opt out of the Propagation Plan from the onset, or you’ll have to submit to weekly tests to make sure we’re fucking like rabbits to make babies.” His sheepish grin preceded another warning. “There’s a shelf life to that too… maybe a year or two at the most until we’re expected to make that commitment. But maybe, by then, we’ll have everything else figured out and I’ll have an out arranged for you…” The silence that hung afterward seemed fearful of plunging into an or alternative.

The immediate elation in his eyes caused Olivia to question what she had just potentially signed herself up for. And the more Charles continued, squeezing her with excitement, the more concerned she became. Years in the Martian aristocracy taught her how to hide her hesitancy from her face, but it bubbled in her stomach. She turned back to laying on his chest, her face turned away from him and was silent. 

She started to speak, but stopped herself after a moment, she tried again. “Charles, I-I just don’t know about all of that. I don’t mind the learning aspect, and I think you would be surprised at my aptitude for those things but,” she stopped again, searching for words, and trying to choose them to not hurt him. 

“But this is tyrannical. I’m not even sure how Earth women put up with this really, but it seems like we’re arranging a marriage. And,” another pause, “I don’t know, I feel like I just escaped one of those and I’m not interested in getting put into another one just to survive.” Quickly, she added, “Don’t get me wrong, I think you’re great, but we don’t know each other. We’ve spent,” she silently tallied the days in her head, “about two weeks together, maybe?”

Finally, she looked back at him, her face drawn in concern and she brushed his cheek with her thumb. “I don’t want to be claimed, Charles. I just want to be able to stay alive, and preferably on this ship with you. But I want to be able to be my own person, not an extension of your orders.” She shook her head again, placing it back down on his chest, but feeling as if she could be pushed away at any moment. “I know you know this, but I just really don’t want to be anyone’s war prize and baby factory. My parents wanted more for me than that, that’s why they gave up so much to help me hide.”

Olivia pulled away from him then, feeling bad for shutting him down so thoroughly after bringing up the idea herself. “I just don’t know what to do,” she added, curling her arms around a pillow and bringing it in towards her body like a stuffed animal.

Upon hearing Olivia’s concerns, Charles sighed while withdrawing his own hands by folding his arms against his chest.

“I definitely could have used a bit more… tact in relaying that information,” he admitted with look of disappointment. “The last thing I wanted to do was to make you feel inferior, or helpless.”

With that declaration, he lifted himself from the bed and around Olivia’s body, maneuvering himself to a sitting position on the corner of the mattress, before generating momentum for a brisk stand upon his heels.

“Though Earth may view our arrangement the way I described it, I certainly wouldn’t treat you as such.” He allowed a slight smile to sift to his face. “And you’re right, we barely know each other at all… and yet, so much has happened to the both us.”

Charles then situated upon his chair and began to swivel it absentmindedly, drumming his fingers upon the armrests. He seemed lost in thought until he managed a final advocation.

“Give it some thought… sleep on it for as long as you need. Like I said, the way Earth might see you isn’t the way I see you. I’d treat you as my equal, and deservedly so, since you’ve proven yourself on many fronts.” He turned to face Olivia, still seated on his chair with his right arm extended and palm open, as if to offer a handshake or assistance to her feet.

Olivia watched him move about the room nervously and felt her heart ping for the man. They were both caught up in an interplanetary war with little way to explore the possibility of being with each other without fully committing to each other. She did hold her hand out to meet his, though, almost instinctively at this point, but she didn’t use it to rise from the bed. Rather, she just held his outstretched hand, letting his large warm palm engulf her small pale digits as he looked at her across the divide between the bed and desk chair. 

After a few minutes of contented silence, each studying the other’s features, she tugged him gently towards her and once he gave in to her, she kissed him softly and chastely. 

Sitting up, she said, “I’ll consider it. It just sounds awful, and like I’ll be needing to spend more time with a non-gagged Andrea…” She trailed off for a moment and then looked pointedly at him, but still with a grin. 

“Shouldn’t you be working on that soundproofed room?”

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