Adrenaline

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


The adrenaline spike from the day’s event was finally starting to take its toll, collapsing Charles to his knees. A pool of sweat began to collect on the floor as he struggled to breathe, shuddering as the magnitude of his actions weighed heavily upon his mind… but the deed was done. His prize was waiting for him in his basement, which he acquired without a hitch in his well-orchestrated plans. The ties between them were razor-thin at best, and Charles hoped against hope that investigators would have next to nothing to go on. There were no witnesses, no noises, no clues left behind… he made damned sure of that. As far as he knew, he got away scot-free.

For a brief moment, Charles reflected on the motivations which possessed him to commit such an act. To put it simply, he was lonely, horny, and frustrated. He certainly wasn’t a bad looking guy by any stretch of the imagination, but between working sixty hours a week and other obligations, his time to pursue personal interests was extremely limited. His occupation had afforded him a decent house, and its maintenance issues he eagerly discussed with quiet pride amongst his coworkers. But it greeted him with quiet emptiness every evening, which was beginning to depress him. His nympho ex who broke off their relationship almost two years ago had left him ravenous for more, and as time went by, his determination to rekindle his sex life strengthened with every wet dream.

During his delivery driver days, before Charles acquired his well-paying but time-consuming job, he delivered pizzas to a particular woman in a subdivision across town. She always greeted him at the door in a sensuous nightgown, smiling and flirting with an outrageously generous tip as she accepted her late-night snack from his clammy hands. He thought of her often before falling asleep after a long shift, and she reclaimed her nightly throne after he was forced once again into single life. He wanted that woman, named Andrea on the printout slip, and wanted her badly. 

Thus, the scheming began. He explored forbidden forums explaining the proper way to utilize chloroform and stalk someone from afar to learn their habits and schedules. The learning was easy, in comparison with gathering the courage to embark upon such a dangerous undertaking, which took him months of personal reassurance and sweat-drenched ‘practice’ runs. But in the end, the prospect of having an attractive woman as his puppet proved to be much too appetizing. Andrea was quickly placed in his trunk after succumbing to his soaked rag before he began the drive back across state lines, three-and-a-half hours away, to his bachelor pad in suburbia.

She was bound to be waking soon, which both excited and terrified him. Charles shook himself free from his mental convulsion and found his way to his feet. He retrieved a gallon of water from his pantry and slowly made his way to the wooden door which led down to the basement. Creaking it open with a cautious hand, his breath caught in his throat before forcing it through his nostrils with a stiff exhale. It was time to begin.

Andrea is a placeholder name, please let me know if you’d like it changed to something else.


It was a darkness so deep, so dark, so vast. She found herself falling through this darkness, hurtling ever closer to an invisible floor. Eyes shut, hands clenched, body braced for the inevitable landing that she knew would be her end. Seconds passed, then hours, weeks, eternity winding through the darkness but slowly, slowly, slowly her nose detected the overpowering, sickly sweet smell of bad candy. Chloroform? The question still hung in the air as twin pains bloomed in her wrists, settling gradually into a comfortable numbness as she clung to the only thing preventing her fall. As her wrist bonds slipped, she found herself blinking sleepily to a dismal picture of gray concrete.

This was discomfiting for a number of reasons. First, she didn’t recognize this depressing expanse of a basement, outfitted with the bare necessities – toilet, sink, and a bed farther off. Second, she was restrained. Cold metal encompassed both of her wrists, snaking into chains just long enough to allow some freedom of movement. A reflexive instinct to scream revealed the existence of a thick, cottony gag. And finally, she couldn’t remember anything of the day before.

Clara, breathe. Breathe. You’re going to be fine. She breathed long, shuddering breaths, practicing the relaxation exercises she advised for her patients. When a semblance of calm had returned to her, she began the futile endeavor of slowly tugging her hands free, met only with a growing sense of frustration and red, chafed skin. Breathe. Breathe. The only thing she could do now was wait.


Charles had knots in his stomach. The exhilarative thrill of success fled his mind hours ago, leaving him with a sickly, anxious feeling which only escalated as the unavoidable moment approached. Sooner or later, she’s going to wake up. He found himself unconsciously reaching for the jug of water beside him whenever his mind drifted towards the inevitable. She must be thirsty, he thought. I’ll give her something to drink right from the start when she wakes up. That’ll prove to her… what? His mind searched awkwardly to finish the thought before an impromptu moan commanded his immediate attention. This is it, Charles silently proclaimed. The time has arrived.

Lifting himself from his seat, he approached her slowly as the look on her face shifted from confusion to… something else. He assumed a wide stance before her, holding the jug of water in front of him as he quietly processed her every move and sound. “Hello,” he flatly called aloud as her eyes slowly rose to meet his own. “You don’t remember me, I bet. But I remember you.” Could that have been any cheesier? This isn’t a game, for Christ’s sakes. Charles sighed to himself as he offered the jug towards the vicinity of her mouth. “I’m sure you’re thirsty. Lean forward a bit and I’ll give you some.”


Ah, so the kidnapper has decided to show his face, bringing with him a – jug of water – of all things. She could practically smell the uncertainty oozing from his skin, seeping through the hesitant pauses and twitching hands. Perhaps

Hope glinted on the horizon, a tiny light from a tiny crack in the formidable stone walls of her prison. Clara slowly relaxed her unconsciously clenched fists, and slowly raised clear blue orbs to meet his, remaining completely still as she waited for him to speak.

The words tumbling from his mouth sound rehearsed, false. Like a drum, hollow and percussive. Could she capitalize on this apparent weakness? Her eyes never strayed from his as she studiously ignored the proffered container. “I don’t know why you brought me here, or who you are. What I do know is that you don’t know what you’re doing.” Every word fell with a calm gravity she didn’t feel, a cold numbness that sparked with an undercurrent of fear. “I have a family that I love and who loves me. They will be worried once they don’t hear from me, and they will look for me. Believe me, you will never, /ever/ get away with this.” She paused briefly, chains clanging as she folded her hands in her lap. “You’re not well. I can help you get better – I can help you live a normal life.”


Charles certainly didn’t expect this. Is she… threatening me? How could she be so… He shrunk back from her slightly, just enough to betray his composure. She can’t be serious. There’s no way. She has to be bluffing. Another quiet moment of retreat passes before Charles finally shrugs off his daze. “I’ll never, ever get away with this?” he forces out, seemingly to challenge her presumption. Backing away from Clara, he took slow, heavy steps back towards his chair, clumsily dropping the jug of water along the way. The lingering shadows consumed his face and torso as the fluorescent light above them began to buzz. “Never, ever…” Charles mumbled those words as if resigning himself to deep contemplation. Was she right? he thought to himself. They could find me. Forensics is amazing nowadays. Could they possibly…

“There’s no way,” he blurts out suddenly, finality trickling into his voice. “There’s no way you’ll be found. Not one person saw what I did. And it’s not like we’ve dated in the past or anything. There’s nothing linking you to me other than a few pizza deliveries, years ago.” Would she remember me now? he wondered while letting the clue slip. Does it matter, in the end? “And let’s be clear about something,” he continued, not giving Clara the opportunity to counter his statement. “You’re never going to leave here. So take a good, hard look around. This is your home now. And I’m not above taking things away to keep you in line.” Charles stopped himself and let his proclamation hang in the air. Not bad, not bad at all. And you’ll get better. In time, you’ll lay down the law like a pro.


There’s no way. There’s no way you’ll be found.

His words hit Clara like a slap, wrenching her firmly entrenched hope loose from its solid foundation, and cracking the calm facade on her features. None of this was helping her splitting headache. Perhaps she’d be lost down here forever at the mercy of an inexperienced kidnapper. No. She would be found. The hospital – they would notice and they would know something was wrong. There was still hope, if, if… if only they could find anything, if she could free herself from the ambiguous clutches of this stranger. But there seemed no way of escape – no windows, one exit, and the tight chains encircling her wrists. Even her clothes would be a hindrance – tall black heels, flimsy sundress. It was all she could do to keep from screaming bloody murder. 

Pizza delivery man? There had been countless delivery men, and women, over the years, and the hard face of the man standing above her struck no familiar chords. Any trace of his uncertainty had transformed into a clumsy confidence in his own intelligence. Pathetic. “If I’m going to stay here for a while, I’d like to know your name.” A risky move, to be sure, but she had nothing to lose. “Why did you take me? What-” her breath caught in her throat- “are you planning to do?” To me. The unspoken words hung in between them, silent but understood. And it was then Clara knew that she was on her own.


Charles’ heart swelled with some sort of pride. You did it. She’s backpedaling now. Keep your momentum. Answer her question… Charles slowly rose from his chair and surrendered himself to the dingy yellow light humming from above. Locking his eyes with Clara’s for just a moment, he dislodges them towards the wall behind her as he delivers his answer.  “My name is Charles. And I’m not going to beat, torture or starve you. So I guess we can start a process of elimination.” Rape. You left off rape. You son of a… An involuntary snicker left his lips as he took closed the distance between them, leaning forward while corkscrewing his neck to smell hers. What the hell? Just because she’s helpless doesn’t mean you should needlessly creep her out. The smile spreading across Charles’ face seemed to address his own concern. She was his now. He could do whatever the hell he wanted. 

Charles ran his nose up and down Clara’s neck, perhaps enjoying himself a moment too long. All right, that’s enough. Down to business. Pulling back, he squared his shoulders and assumed his trademark wide stance. “I can promise you three square meals a day with plenty to drink, obviously.” Charles nodded towards the sink beside her as verification. What are you doing? Explaining her benefits package? She’s not going to take you seriously. “I’m telling you this because it doesn’t have to be so bad for you down here. As long as you accept that this is your home, from now on… I’ll do my very best to keep things as comfortable as they can be. Factoring in that you’ll club me over the head and escape with half a moment’s opportunity, of course.” Hmm. Interesting strategy. Laying everything on the table. Staying wise to her act. But don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal… 

A growl of hunger fills the moment of silence between Charles and Clara. His eyes shift towards her stomach with a look of acknowledgement. “Yeah. I bet you’re hungry. I have some good food for you upstairs. I’ll be back in a bit.” Charles calmly makes his way towards a stairwell in the middle of the room, an obvious bridge to the floor above. Moments pass before the clanging of plates and silverware are heard, followed by the approach of footsteps. A creaking door releases light onto the stairwell before Charles descends towards the basement again. 

“I hope you like turkey,” he announces pleasantly while holding a plate of food. The aroma quickly floods the entirety of the stale basement as Charles peers around the area for something. “Ah. There it is,” he says with recognition before setting the plate of food upon what looks to be a waist-high tray with wheels. Wheeling it towards Clara, he stops it just short of her mattress. Strategic placement. Just out of her reach. Now to see if this works… He remains motionless as Clara attempts to reach the food to no avail. Her questioning eyes twinge with anger as they slowly rise to meet his. “I want you to eat,” Charles responds flatly. “But there’s something you need to do for me first.” He pedals backwards and takes his seat, immersing himself in the shadows once more before slowly reciting his instruction. “I need you to say to me… Charles is my lord and master. I exist only to please him.” Was that really the best you can come up with? Oh well. It’s a start. “Say it thirty times. Say it like you mean it. Then you can eat.”


Process of elimination? The only thing that seemed to be missing was…rape. Oh, God, no. A perverse part of her was almost relieved at the thought, even though his promises not to hurt her could eventually amount to nothing. No, no. There’s no room for relief in this situation. Clara closed her eyes, attempting to reorient herself when she felt his breath hot against her neck while equal amounts of terror, confusion, and disgust battled against the strange paralysis that stiffened her entire body. Her breaths came hard and quick and shallow, her heartbeat loud and percussive. Don’t do it. Please, please, please, please. Even after he’d retreated to his chair, she stood plastered against the wall, hands shaking, barely heeding his words. So close. Too close. It was then that she discovered her hunger, the twinging emptiness in her stomach threatening to cross into the realm of the audible. No, no, no, no, no. Her stomach grumbled and her face bloomed red with embarrassment, hoping the sound had not reached his ears.

No such luck. In the time she was left to herself, she surveyed the room again, willing her stomach into silence and her presence of mind to return. You’re going to be okay. You messed up, but you’ll get through this. A toilet and sink sat to the right of her, and as he had gone upstairs, she quickly used the toilet to be spared a later humiliation. While a thin foam mattress lay on the floor, a bed, with a proper headboard and proper sheets, was just visible on the other side of the room. For him? Charles?A strangely regal name to be attached to a coarse, grinning stranger. Grey concrete bathed in a harsh yellow light lined the entire enclosure, and after hearing the clinking of plates floating from the tantalizingly open door, Clara concluded that she was being held in a house. Charles. Pizza delivery. Belatedly, dim memories of being sixteen, curvy, and loving the attention it got her surfaced. She mentally cursed her naive stupidity and glared at the ground. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.

When he returned with a plate of food and more meaningless words, Clara had worked herself into a truly sullen state.  Her first instinct was to reach for the proffered food, only to stop short at the end of her chains, cheeks burning with anger and humiliation. At his demand, she didn’t respond, forcing her face into a semblance of serenity before replying shortly, “I’m a vegetarian. And if you believe that you’ll ever be anything more to me than a pathetic excuse for a kidnapper, you’d be wrong. But if you release me now, I’ll promise to tell my FBI boyfriend not to press charges.” Even to her own ears, her words sounded hollow, fake, desperate. Her options were quickly dwindling, and soon he would become too drunk with power to be swayed. She had to act, even if it was futile. Please just go away. Let me go. I want to go home. Please.


A faint smile curled on the corner of Charles’ lips. She’s really grasping at straws now, isn’t she? That’s right. Keep reaching. He skirted the bait neatly, directing his attention instead towards the plate of food before them. Clutching the piece of turkey with his thumb and forefinger, he unhesitatingly flings it into patch of darkness behind the stairwell. I guess she’ll be having only succotash and mashed potatoes tonight… or not. “Very well, then. I’ll keep that in mind for future entrees. But my requirement still stands. Just remember that a hot, fresh meal is ready for you once you buck up and start doing what I say.” There we go. Skip right over her pathetic attempt for a bargaining chip. No need to address that which poses no threat. Charles patiently wheeled the tray towards a recess in the wall behind Clara. “I guess we’ll try food again tomorrow morning. A generous selection of vegetarian-friendly fare, I assure you. Assuming your cooperation, of course.”  

As he resituated himself in front of her, a rousing sense of anticipation began to resonate in Charles’ mind. A heavy breath, and then… “You were really flirty on the phone when you ordered your pizzas. And the outfits you wore when I showed up at your door… mm.” Stepping towards her, Charles found his hands resting on Clara’s sides, tracing her contours longingly before abruptly rescinding his advance. Okay, then. I thought you were going to exercise some restraint in the beginning. But I suppose if you’d like to indulge for a spell, then go ahead. “I couldn’t wait to go home after my shift and throw myself into bed. There was plenty you gave me to think about.” Charles chased after Clara’s desperately evasive eyes, finally locking them down after a considerable pursuit. “That’s right. I thought about you long and hard. Over and over. I always had to clean up afterwards.” Clara remained motionless, her expression vacant. Charles paused for a moment, then closed his eyes in response to a fond memory. “Inside you. I always finished inside you. Then I’d fall asleep.” A smile slowly wrapped around his face. “And the dreams. Always pleasant.” 

Okay. Fall back, soldier. You’ve made your point. Given her something to think about. To… accept. Charles sighed heavily through his nostrils, then pulled away from Clara. A quick lick of the lips preceded what he wanted to say next. He couldn’t wait to make this point. “Hypothetically speaking… if something were to, ah… happen in the future… there’s no way you could complicate your situation by getting pregnant. I shoot blanks.” Charles flashed Clara an exaggerated wink, then caught sight of his own breath. He took a quick assessment of the mattress below him. “I’ll see if I can get you a heavier blanket. It’s supposed to be pretty cold tonight.” Charles shifted himself towards his left, not unlike a solider excusing himself from a conversation, before retreating towards the stairwell again and disappearing into the floor above. 


Clara watched him, watched the smile grow on his lips, watched him continue on, undaunted, knowing that one of her last chances had failed miserably. He knows. He knows that I have nothing but words. He knows that there is nothing I can do to stop him. She watched him dispose of the turkey, watched his lips move, shaping his commands into something almost reasonable. She felt her eyes dull, dropping down, felt herself crumbling, felt the will to fight slowly draining from her body. But she had to resist him – why? Was there any point in delaying the inevitable? She was hungry, cold, uncomfortable. There was no sense in torturing herself any further. Clara would submit to him, but once he trusted her enough to free her, she would escape. You can have my body, but you’ll never have my mind.

She kept her eyes lowered even as she felt him approaching, his voice warm, almost friendly, in her ears. His words plucked memories of confident flirtations and harmless provocations long buried in a box of adolescent frivolities. She had made mistakes, but she would rectify them. She had been foolish, but now she was wiser. His hands slowly roamed lower, his narrative winding on and on as a blush rose in her neck. Clara pressed her lips together, feeling him trying to catch her eye, frantically trying to avoid his gaze but blundered and froze, caught within his scrutinizing gaze. She could almost see the eagerness, the desire clouding his eyes as he drew closer and closer, lost in the convolutions of his reverie.

He’s dropped all pretense. He’s definitely going to rape me, and I won’t be able to stop him. Clara found herself accepting the thought with unexpected calmness. She knew she would have to convince him, and she knew she would have to catch him off guard. None of her thoughts reached her features, which remained blank and emotionless as she watched him disappear up the stairs. Releasing the breath she didn’t know she was holding, she slowly sank on the cold mattress before her, rubbing her hands together in a vain attempt to warm them. It was cold, and for a while, she sat, watching the little puffs of her white breath. You’ll never have me.


Charles reemerged with a balled-up comforter which he tossed onto the mattress. Sleep well tonight. Hopefully an aching body and crampy stomach will make you more amenable tomorrow. He nodded acceptingly while Clara wrapped herself within the blanket as best she could, as if this simple gesture required its own approval. “For your information, the entire premises down here is under video surveillance. So I’d be pretty discreet if you’re planning on trying anything.” What the hell. Are you trying to encourage her? Wasn’t the whole point of this to… Don’t worry. It’ll take some time. But she’ll cave. “I intend on letting you having an occasional bath, but I guess we’ll have to be creative on how to best execute that. Maybe you can come up with some ideas and share them with me tomorrow.” Perfect. The gears will be turning in her head tonight on how to best fuck you over. Let her ponder, scheme, plan. She won’t be fully broken until she’s tried everything. And you’ll be ready for it. Ready for anything. “Good night,” Charles said flatly with a lingering glance before disappearing into the world above.

Charles’ body thoroughly reminded him on how exhausted he was upon retiring himself to his room. Damn. You’re beat. Adrenaline certainly is a double-edged sword. Time to lay back and regain some strength. You did well tonight. You’ve earned your respite. A brief consideration for a shower was quickly discarded before haphazardly flopping himself onto his bed. She’s going to be stewing. There’s definitely plenty of fight left in her. He turned onto his side and absorbed the blue glow of the computer station which sat across from the foot of his bed. A large monitor displayed Clara’s captivity from several angles, with a main view governing over three smaller ones. I see you… I see you. And you’re not going anywhere.

Charles’ mind was a relentless whirlwind of apprehension and contemplation, but he eventually found sleep. Dreams immediately began to flood his newfound slumber. Dreams of failed marriages, short-lived girlfriends…

I work hard, I make good money. Plenty for the both of us. So, what do you want from me, then? Why not stay at home? Be a housewife. Cook and clean. Hanky-panky in between. It can’t be that bad of a life. Just throw away my education? I have a PhD in cultural sciences, you know. Yeah, but you don’t have a job yet. I know, but I’m looking. Looking hard. That’s fine. I get it. This will just be temporary. There’s no fucking way I’m going to spend my days cleaning up after you. So just forget it.

So, uhm. I just thought I’d bring up that we haven’t had sex in a month. Yeah. It bothers me, too. Maybe tonight, then? Great way to come on to your girlfriend. Why not? Everything else I’ve tried hasn’t worked. Look, I just have a lot on my mind, okay? She hasn’t been working very well down there. At least you get stiff as a rod with a ten-second porno clip and can instantly relieve yourself. Great, Just great. Well, just let me know when the plumbing starts working again. Wow. I can’t believe you just said to me, asshole.

The irritating buzz of an alarm clock forced Charles’ crusty eyelids open. Bright red digits met his eyes from the nearby nightstand… 6:30. He still felt very tired but forced himself to sit up. A new day. A new opportunity. Luckily, you had the foresight to plan a long vacation ahead of you. Slowly making his way to the kitchen, be began to pull out several pots and pans from the cupboards. Make sure it smells delicious. The aroma will drive her into submission.


Sleep wouldn’t come easy tonight. Even wrapped in the comforter, Clara still shivered, head turned away from her captor as she fixed her eyes on the wall, running her eyes over the tiny bumps and scratches that populated the stretch of concrete. Video surveillance? Of course. She let her eyes wander upward, looking for any signs of the cameras, but the lights had dimmed, and everything retreated into shadow. After Charles had returned upstairs, Clara buried her head within the comforter, slowly digesting his words. He’s testing you, seeing if you’ll try to escape. It’s best to wait some time, lull him into a false sense of security, before trying to escape. She huddled around the small pool of warmth in her empty stomach and drew the comforter tighter around her, breathing softly into the folds. 

Eventually she drifted off into a fitful sleep, dreaming of cold, peaceful landscapes, of angry shouting men, of hands tentatively, then roughly, stroking her body, of rocks stacked into piles and falling one by one, of a bird flying into a window repeatedly, of a goldfinch chained to a branch, of cold hands around her throat, around her ankles, around her wrists, of suffocating slowly in a sea of warmth, until she awoke with a start and peered over the edge of the comforter. Was it morning yet? What time is it? She rubbed her aching wrists as best she could and sat up. One day closer to escape.

She groaned softly and made her way to the sink, turning on the cold tap, and washing her face, gasping at the frigid temperature of the water. Stopping short, she heard faint sounds coming from upstairs. Morning, then. She dried her face and hands on the outside of the comforter, and sat back down, burying her face in her hands. Will he give her silverware? Not likely. Is there anything within her reach that could be weaponized? Not that she could see. She climbed back beneath the comforter and pretended to sleep. Perhaps he would reveal something if he believed her unconscious.


It wasn’t until Charles finished preparing Carla’s plate that he realized he himself hadn’t eaten in a good while. Helping himself to a peanut butter sandwich, he began to assess the challenge that awaited him downstairs. So, then. What if a hot breakfast still isn’t enough to get her to follow your instructions? She must be starving after all this time. You don’t want her stubbornness to sacrifice any of her alluring curves. There’s always plan B, he acknowledged to himself. If she insists on playing hard ball, then we’ll see how long she can bear without water. Just keep reminding her of the simple price she has to pay. Just repeat after me, darling. Then you’ll get all you can eat and drink.

A flick of the switch guided his descent down the stairwell towards the basement. He approached Carla slowly with the tray, setting it on its wheeled compartment before fully turning his attention to her still, blanketed body. It looks like she’s sleeping in. Shall we leave her be for now? Of course not. Her schedule always reflects yours, and that’s all there is to it. “Time to get up,” Charles announced before giving the cold concrete a loud stomp. “Chop, chop. I have breakfast waiting for you.” The pleasing aroma of fruit, potatoes and toast quickly overtook the musty smell of sleep, but Carla’s body still offered no movement. “I said up,” Charles called louder than before, aggravation trickling into his voice. Movement under the blanket signified Carla’s compliance, but she seemed slow to expose herself to her looming captor. A frustrated sigh left Charles’ lips before he reached towards Carla and unearthed her face with a firm pull of the blanket. “Rise and shine, sleeping beauty. We have work to do.”

Okay, bucko. This is it. Time for round two. “We tried this yesterday and things didn’t work out so well,” Charles reviewed solemnly while pulling the warm tray of food closer to him. He then kneeled down near Carla and presented her a conciliatory smile. “I know you can do it. All you have to say is, ‘Charles is my lord and master. I exist only to satisfy him.’ Then you have all you can eat. I’ll even whip up seconds.” He reached for a piece of strawberry and held it near Carla’s groggy eyes. “Let’s here you say it. Thirty times. Easy-peasy.” His right hand lifted itself up into the air, digits fully extended. “I’ll count for you. Six times five. It’ll be over before you know it.”


She had almost drifted off again, ensconced within the residual warmness of the comforter, but she soon heard his footsteps on the stairs and smelled the heavenly aroma of breakfast. Be strong, Clara. Make him think he’s won. She lay still beneath the comforter, not responding to his words, not even flinching at the slap of the concrete just behind her. She listened as the frustration built in his voice, and reflexively curled tighter into herself, only to be greeted with the full glow of the harsh lights and Charles’ face, hard with lines of annoyance. Blinking sleepily, Clara rubbed her eyes as he continued in the same chipper vein he had started in. How could anyone be this awake in the morning? 

She slowly shifted until she was sitting, back resting against the reassuringly solid wall, trying not to concentrate on the insistent pangs of hunger. After so many hours without food, the strawberry Charles held before her had taken on a surreal quality. Without even thinking, she knew it would be sweet, succulent, sublime. Slow, Clara, slow. Her eyes drifted from the strawberry to his hands as he repeated his command from the night before. It’s okay. You don’t really mean it. And that’s what really counts in the end. She took a deep, shuddering breath and fixed her eyes on the ground in front of his feet – anywhere, anywhere but his eyes. 

Her lips parted, the words barely audible. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Then again, faster, louder. “Charles-is-my-Lord-and-Master-I-exist-only-to-satisfy-him.” She pressed her lips together and soldiered on, flattening her voice into producing only neutral tones. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Careful. You are what you say you are. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” You’re a nurse, you graduated at the top of your class, you work at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the area. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” There are people out there who are looking for you, there are people who are worried sick about you. “Charles is my Lord and Master. I exist only to satisfy him.” Why haven’t they found you yet? “- Charles is my Lord and Master.” She paused, doubt filling her mind. “I exist only to – satisfy him.” Will they ever find me? I don’t want this, any of this. “Charles…is my Lord…” She stopped, her voice breaking, eyes burning. Another few seconds and the tears were sliding down her cheeks, soft sobs muffled by the comforter she frantically pulled to her face. 

“Please – go away. Leave me alone. I don’t want to play your stupid games. I just – I just want to go home. Please.” 


Charles’ ears eagerly welcomed Clara’s labored recital with unbridled relish. Listen. Stay quiet. Just listen and enjoy. Savor each syllable. The shifts in Clara’s tone and pattern didn’t seem to affect his captivation. Each ragged exhale climbed in quivering intensity, as if he was approaching some kind of release. Thank you. Thank you, Clara. Thank you for… The abrupt plead of desperation ground his ascent to a screeching halt. No. No, no, no. Don’t stop. Don’t stop! Charles’ right hand held fast, four visible fingers signifying her ninth submission. Damn you… Just give up. Just let me have I want. A dissatisfied snort accompanied a pair of angry eyelids, opening wide to show their resentful separation from the indulgence of her rehearsal. Then: a moment of clarity. She’ll keep doing this, you know. She won’t be fully yours until you give her something in return.

Hope. She needs hope. Craves it. If you want her utmost compliance, she has to be clinging to hope. Okay, then. Let’s do it. Let’s give her some hope. He took a knee beside her again, his warm smile accompanying red, flustered cheeks. “Good. Very good, Clara. I know that was hard. We’ll work on getting the count higher next time.” Charles slowly stood up and turned his neck away, partially obscuring the features on his face. “You want to go home? Very well. Let’s see if we can make a deal.” A short pause conceded a moment of silent consideration. And then: “Do exactly what I say. When I say it. Six months. Then I’ll set you free.” A lie. Her freedom equates to you spending the rest of your life in prison. Or worse. “I’m only offering this once. And I’ll have to evaluate each infraction as to whether you’ve forfeited your end of the bargain. So you’ll have to be on your best behavior.” He clapped his hands together several times, simulating a judge repeatedly slamming his gavel. “Non-negotiable. Final. So, what do you say?”


She could see that her actions were unexpected, disconcerting even. The moment had passed, and much as a toddler becomes infatuated with something strange in the middle of a temper tantrum, Clara quieted down, wiping her eyes with the edge of the comforter. As her focus shifted from her own woes to a calmer study of her kidnapper’s face, Clara realized that the hopelessness that had choked her mere seconds had begun to dwindle, replaced by an emptiness that surprised her. As she waited, she saw the frustrated anger curled in his features melt into something resembling contemplation. Did you change his mind? Is he going to let you go? She stared at him with reddened yet quizzical eyes as he stood up, as if considering her outburst a logical argument, worthy of rebuttal or compromise.

Her heart instinctively rose in her chest when he mentioned making a deal. Was there a chance he would let you go? Just like that? Even with the improbability of it all, she couldn’t help but feel heartened, almost cheerful. Hopeful. That was the word, wasn’t it? Six months? Half a year, two seasons, twenty-six weeks, one hundred eighty-two days, however you put it, it’s a long time. Can you survive that long? She could feel her doubts flickering across her wrinkled forehead, soon hardening into something resembling resolve. “And if you decide that I’ve failed to keep my end of the bargain?” He’ll keep you forever.


Surprise, surprise. She bought into it. Your fabrication. She’s invested herself. Charles met Clara’s questioning eyes with the most authentic expression of integrity he could muster. “There shouldn’t be any deliberation if you simply do what I command without hesitation. And I realize it must be a hard sell to prove my trustworthiness. But you’ll see. Six months and you’ll be free. I’ll even hang a calendar down here. We’ll discuss along the way how to best ensure that I won’t be captured.” Nice touch, there. Everything on the table for all to see. Makes your pitch more believable. His acquiescent demeanor suddenly soured, a furrowed brow further communicating a stern shift. “So cut the shit,” Charles said with a snap, his voice teetering towards anger. “I’m holding you steadfastly to our agreement. No games. No crying. Just complete, unrelenting obedience. Kapeesh?” 

Charles flashed Clara a firm look of finality before turning his attention towards the almost forgotten tray of breakfast. He wheeled it towards Clara, carefully tilting it to better roll upon the mattress, ensuring her ease of access. Watching her eat, his mind drifted. So you have her reciting your weird manta. Great. What’s next?Spasms of desire began to flood his loins, which he concealed with a shift of his stance. You haven’t gotten off in a while, have you? Let her eat. Then take her. Fuck her. Put her to the test. Get some real enjoyment out of this, for Christ’s sakes. Charles bit his lip, the primal cravings finally beginning to wash over. No. Not yet. You can have her anytime. Continue to break her. Mold her. Truly make her yours. Have her anticipate your needs. Have her eagerly seek to fulfill them. Then, only then, you will have won.


Clara couldn’t help but feel a vague sense of unease, a nagging suspicion that refused to be pinned down. It’s just your nerves. People negotiate with their kidnappers all the time, don’t they? She shifted uncomfortably, but the look on his face and genuine reason in his voice reassured her. Perhaps he really means it. If she kept her head down and her mouth shut, she would be able to escape unscathed – mentally, at least. And if any opportunities arose before then, there would be nothing stopping her from turning her back on their bargain and running as far away as she could. His harsh words woke her from her reverie, and returned her to the hard reality that would be those six months. Clara nodded in response to his terse inquiry, fingers crossed beneath the comforter. He doesn’t have to know.

When the tray of food was within her reach, Clara grabbed the plate, once again reminded of her persistent hunger. It seemed that she hadn’t eaten in a decade; everything she put in her mouth seemed to explode with flavor like nothing she had ever eaten before. Clara restrained herself, eating slowly and delicately, ever mindful of Charles’ watchful presence. She had promised her absolute obedience – she stopped eating. What would he make her do? Probably more than a little light housework, that’s for sure. She swallowed the last bit of toast, placed the plate back on the tray, and waited tensely, her mind deluged with a flood of unsavory possibilities.


Something didn’t sit right with Charles, even though he knew he was the sole beneficiary of their newly established agreement. He watched Carla finish her food, his expression shifting from one of quiet observation to sobered discouragement. “I hope you enjoyed that,” he said vacantly while seizing her tray and heading towards the stairs. What’s wrong? Why don’t you feel okay about this? “I’ll be back in a bit,” Charles announced before disappearing into the world upstairs, the lingering disappointment fully apparent in his gait. As he tossed the tray into the sink, he finally got a handle of why he was feeling the way he was. You fool. You bloody, bloody fool.

Too much. You’ve relinquished too much. What do you mean? I’m more in control now than I was before. Are you? You should have forced her to accept her situation the hard way. You’re babying her now, with empty promises of eventual freedom. I can mold her, shape her. I have her right where I want her. What good is having what you want if your will has to bend every time? Damn it. Nothing but a cheat code. A lazy shortcut towards the final stage of the game. 

Charles reemerged down the stairwell wearing a new ensemble of clothing: beige shorts and worn sneakers were the first articles to be uncovered from the overhead basement light. A small insignia on the upper left of his deep blue shirt drove the point home: He looked an awful lot like a pizza delivery guy. Tossing a bag towards Clara’s feet, a pink lacy strap draped over the side immediately gave away what was inside. “Here. Put this on.” He then pulled a small remote from his back pocket and focused it towards her restraints, pressing a button which released Clara with a clickety-clack after a short pause. Well done, you idiot. She’s going to be fantasizing about how she can possibly get her clammy hands on that thing. Bright red welts pulsated on her wrists and ankles as Clara stood frozen for a brief moment before focusing herself on the bag, frantically fumbling with its contents. “Quickly, quickly.” Charles called at her militantly while keeping his distance, making a point to expose what seemed to be a taser strapped to his belt.

After Carla finished putting on her outfit, Charles made a brisk circular motion with his outstretched hand. “Turn around. One wrong move and I shock you senseless, reshackle you, then disappear for a week.” He reached for a tangled bundle of straps and restraints from another bag resting at his side, then approached her slowly. After some considerable effort and methodical instruction, a debilitating BDSM-style harness was fastened upon Clara, forcing her arms together in a gesture of prayer while giving her feet a limited length of stride. He seized hold of a chain which dangled from her neck piece, pulling her towards another part of the basement, where a rotary phone rested upon a small table with a nearby wooden chair. Then, without warning: Charles hastily solidified his position behind Clara, forcing her into a kneeling position before brandishing a large utility knife, presenting its blade an inch before her eyes. Now. Now’s the time.

“I want you to know something, Clara. I’ve thought about you being down here for a long time now. And I’ve considered many things for us to do together.” Charles slowly dragged the dull side of his blade down her back, watching her skin recoil with silent delight. He then snapped it close and clasped the top of Clara’s head with his palm, forcefully guiding it towards the right corner of the basement. “Do you see it?” he asked aloud, pointing towards some sort of contraption hidden in shadow. It wasn’t easily visible at first, but after a few moments, the faint outlines of an inclined bench came into focus. “You see, I really wanted to break you down. To beg. To plead. So, I studied up on the safest ways to waterboard someone. I wanted to ingrain in your mind that even breathing was a luxury.” He leaned close to Clara’s ear, his sardonic smile unmistakably evident through his whisper. “Imagine the sensation of drowning. Over. And over. And over.” He pulled back from her as if to collect himself, sarcastically clearing his throat. “I was going to do that to you. I still might.”

That’s it. That’s right. She can have hope, but she also needs fear. But, in the end, these are all precursors. She needs to embrace helplessness. She has to lose her identity. She has to lose herself. “Now,” Charles said with unsettling assuredness, gesturing towards the rotary phone. “It’s time for our game.”


The full import of what she had done, what had made him do, was still trickling into her consciousness. Even if he might not have realized yet, Clara had made him deviate from his lengthy, detailed plan with a simple emotional breakdown. She watched emerge from his sojourn up the stairs, frowning quizzically at his changed appearance. Was he dressed as a… delivery man? The bag he was holding soon landed at her feet, pink lace pooling from a gap in the zipper. That didn’t bode well. A short click and resulting clatter signified her sudden release as she examined the angry red marks on her wrists and ankles, almost collapsing as the blood rushed back into her numbed extremities. Her eyes lifted just quickly enough to catch sight of a small black device as Charles slipped it into his pocket.

His words startled her into action, clumsy trembling fingers extracting what appeared to be two very small pieces of lace. After a moment of dumbfounded embarrassment, she set about disrobing, glancing ever so often at the taser in his belt while studiously avoiding his eyes, and self consciously stepped into the lacy ensemble. Clara watched him extract the mess of straps and metal, and let him, with no little apprehension, fasten the straps around her wrists, her neck and her ankles, a length of chain snaking down from the metal collar. She swallowed nervously. This was far from the typical fantasy. This had been carefully planned with a definite goal, an idea that had spiraled into something so much more than that. His rough movements caused her to stumble frequently as she ventured into an unfamiliar area of the basement.

She had barely enough time to register an ancient phone, one with a rotating dial, before she was forced awkwardly to her knees. She could feel him behind her, a wall of menace, of intimidation. Her heart kept into her throat – was that a knife? Clara fixed her eyes on the tapering metal blade, willing it not to come any closer. And it didn’t. He had thought about her, he had planned what he would do to her, he had fantasized, distorted, idealized this experience above everything and Clara, she closed her eyes. It won’t seem quite so real if you imagine you’re somewhere else. Anywhere else. A thin cold line crept down the bare skin of her back, a deliberate motion, carefully calculated to unsettle. Please don’t hurt me. She looked where he wanted her to look, but saw nothing.

A few moments more, and the dim outline of a simple wooden bench made itself apparent. Waterboarding? The term meant nothing to her, but his tone conveyed enough malice for her to get the general idea. Drowning. The very word was triggering, bringing back long buried memories of inhaling water, a fading light at the surface, of being resuscitated by unfamiliar men. Clara inhaled sharply, eyes fixed on a point just in front of her, her eyes caressing the outline of the phone, searching for something familiar, something comfortable, anything. “I thought you said no more games.” That’s it. React unexpectedly. Say the first things that come into mind. Throw him off balance enough times and he might let you go.


He simply could not believe his ears. Even after all that, was she still showing… defiance? Charles shuffled a short walk towards the front of Clara, kneeling before her with a wild, frenzied look radiating from his eyes. No. Not a chance. This sort of thing can’t be permitted. Reaching out past her ear, he grabbed hold of her hair and yanked, pulling her head back enough to fully expose her neck. Damn collar. Oh well. Charles reintroduced his knife and nodded towards it with a sarcastic look of reverence. He then slowly drew a line on Clara’s flesh, just below the collar, with the blunt side of his knife from left to right, simultaneously mouthing a sound effect. Krrrrrrkkkkkksshhhhhhhh. Clara was then released, left to collect herself as Charles snapped his knife closed, tucking it away within a back pocket.

Charles stood up suddenly, breaking any imminence of his threat. His mind was swimming with confliction. Waterboard her. Now. Let her squirm with desperation for an hour or two as she begs for air. Another, long-forgotten voice chimed in. Didn’t you promise that you wouldn’t torture her? A rebuttal: One man’s torture is another’s walk in the park. Charles sifted through the jumble of voices with balanced consideration, though he already knew what he wanted. His desire was to punish her. Severely. Then, with a crackling burst, one final voice overtook the rest, resolving his intentions with unequivocal certainty. NO. If she deviates your itinerary in any way, then she is victorious. He collected himself before looking down towards her. A slow, composed breath preceded his terse warning. “Test me again and I’ll break your arms.” You meant that. Good job. He then forced Clara to her feet and pushed her back onto the patiently waiting chair.

Retrieving something from his pocket, Charles unfolded a piece of paper and tossed it upon the table beside the phone, presenting it to Clara. Alternating bars of color quickly revealed themselves as lines of text, laid out in a screenplay format. “The lines in red are yours,” Charles said with an indication of his finger. One line in particular seemed to jump off of the page, under a second Act, no less. For some reason, it was written considerably larger than the rest. Clara: I’m so sorry, delivery-man. I don’t have enough left over for a tip. Maybe you can give me yours? Charles’ businesslike glare sharply contrasted the absurdity of his script. “Don’t fuck this up. Make it believable.” No warning needed this time. She knows. 

Charles left Clara and lumbered towards a second set of props yards away, immersed within a blanket of grayed shadows. He passed a wooden frame along his route which harbored a door, standing tall a few feet from the foot of the neglected bed. He plopped himself into his chair with a grunt before calling towards Clara. “My number is 392. Go on ahead.” Charles knew he should expect a lackluster performance at best. But as Carla reluctantly accepted her role, reciting her lines with brooding objection, he smiled internally. This is fun. An investigative peek into what could have been. Charles’ phone rang, which he let ring twice before answering. Just like they taught you when you worked there. He then promptly answered. “Thank you for calling Dominoes Pizza, home of the Sausage Sensation. Would you like to try a large, two-topping pizza for 11.99?”

Clara’s delivery of her lines was surprisingly all over the place. Charles savored the most genuine acting that she mustered. She’s not doing too bad of a job. Or maybe your excitement is compensating for her awfulness. His anticipation rose once she finished placing her ‘order.’ Time for Act 2. He directed Clara with a snap of his fingers towards the back of the freestanding door, the foot of the bed not far behind her. He then rose from his chair with another prop in his hands: an empty pizza box. Positioning himself before the wooden monolith, Charles rang a bell which seemed to visibly bounce throughout the basement with a piercing echo. Taking her cue, Clara opened the door between them almost immediately. You were supposed to wait for a few seconds, you dumb bitch. Her mediocre assertiveness almost made up for her mistake. She’s getting better at this. More dialogue was exchanged before the inevitable climax. Clara invited him ‘inside’ with a flat recitation, which was enough to make Charles’ heart pound. Even after this badly-acted schlock, you’re still loving every second of this, huh? 

Charles had seen enough. He tossed the pizza box aside and rushed towards Clara, forcing her to stumble backwards towards the bed behind them. His body toppled upon hers almost immediately with an awkward flop. He adjusted himself to align the twitching bulge between his legs against Clara’s crotch. Now. Now! Tear her panties off and fuck her! Even as his body trembled with sweaty expectation, he was slow to act. What now, you unbelievable piece of work? Charles couldn’t place it at first. Then he did. Her previous rebellion. It bothered him on a fundamental level. Ah. You’re realizing it now, then.

Charles climbed off Clara before awkwardly excusing himself, beads of sweat glistening on his brow. He meekly sauntered away towards an envelope of darkness just out of view. Moments passed before squeaky wheels were heard approaching the bed where Clara lay motionless. Before long, she caught a glimpse with the corner of her eye: the inclined bench. Leather straps dangled from its sides before resting forebodingly upon the concrete floor. Charles materialized again, standing firm at the foot of the bed. He coldly lifted his arm, then pointed with his finger. “You. On there. Now.” 


And to think, she would have thought him laughable, had this been under different circumstances. As it was, a definite feeling of unease had made her head its home with no intention of leaving. Clara restrained the cry of pain that rose to her lips as he pulled her head back, and could only wait in torturous suspense as the now familiar knife blade slid across her throat, accompanied by a theatrical sound effect that should have been out of place, but instead made the situation that much more sinister. What are you trying to prove, Charles? Do you think me your equal? Because that’s what he was doing, putting on larger and larger shows of power for her benefit. But he hadn’t actually hurt her, he hadn’t followed through on any of his threats. You know what they say, his bark is worse than his bite. He’ll break my arms? Sure. Nevertheless, a small worm of doubt nibbled into the apple of her mind. He sounded like he really meant it, that time.

There was conflict within her, equally matched feelings of terror, excitement, and defiance jostling for dominance, each manifesting itself for a moment before being pulled under by the others. She glanced at the page in front of her – quite a thick stack he’s got there – perusing the pages as best she could considering her bound arms, and groaning inwardly, a blush glowing on her face that almost matched the red text. His next words each fell with a weight at her feet. Don’t. Fuck. This. Up. Clara sighed inaudibly, murmuring beneath her breath, “If you want believable, I’ll give you believable.” 392. How does this phone even work? She glanced nervously in Charles’ direction, and took the phone out of its cradle, and tentatively pushed the ‘3’ button. No dice. Struck with inspiration, she pulled it clockwise, where it returned to its original position. She did the same with the ‘9’ and the ‘2,’ relieved when she heard it ringing across the room. 

The exchange that followed was inundated by equal amounts of terrible writing and terrible acting. “Oh yes, I would like a Sausage Sensation with extra sausage, please. I haven’t had any sausage in me for so long.” “Is it okay if I pay you when you get here? I’ve got something special for you.” “I hope you don’t have any other plans. I’d like to keep you all to myself.” When she hung up, Charles quickly motioned her to a position in front of the other bed she had seen and behind a wooden door. After a few seconds of difficult maneuvering, and several moments when she thought she would trip and fall, Clara was in place, script clutched in her hand. Opening the door immediately after the bell was a mistake, as she apprehensively watched the frustration flicker over his face and disappear. “Thank you so much, delivery-man. Won’t you come inside?” And then comes the special large-text line. “I’m so sorry, deliver-man. I don’t have enough left over for a tip. Maybe you can give me yours?” 

Charles reacted as she’d expected, and she had prepared herself for this moment, taking a step backward and steeling herself for the fall and his subsequent weight on her body. Clara’s eyes were firmly closed, her bound hands clenched beneath him, her entire body stiff as a board. Please be quick. She felt him between her legs and resisted the urge to throw up. After a few seconds, she realized that he had stopped moving, but was still breathing hot air onto her forehead. What’s wrong? Too much of a coward to go through with it? As soon as he had gone she melted into the bed, almost crying from relief. That is, until she caught sight of the bench approaching her location. Artificial drowning? Oh, god, no. She didn’t respond to his command, eyes blankly fixed on his as she slowly inched her legs off the bed, and took off as quickly as she was able, running awkwardly toward and up the stairs, bound hands trying the door. Please be unlocked, please-please-please-please.


The door was locked, of course. Even so, Charles watched Clara joggle the doorknob with a vague feeling of unease. Well, this is her chance if she ever had one. That latching mechanism could malfunction and she could actually get upstairs. No worries. There were plenty of contingency plans in place. He hurried up the stairs after Clara and seized her firmly. “Boy, you are going to pay for this,” he growled while dragging her flailing body back towards the bed. A brief struggle ensued which Charles utilized to his full advantage. Maneuvering himself behind Clara, he applied a chokehold to her neck with ample pressure, causing her thrashing limbs to calm after a few desperate moments. Before long she collapsed to the floor, and Charles took a breath before quickly pulling out a small key-like object from his shirt pocket. Using it to address the bindings around Carla’s wrists, her arms parted from each other before falling limp onto her lap. As he drug her by the feet towards the bench, a strange exhilaration overwhelmed in senses. Control. You’re in control. Always have been. Always will be. He hands tended to Clara’s bindings on the bench. His mind hazily reminisced.

He reflected on numerous lovemaking sessions he had in years past. His habit was to forcefully cover the mouth and nostrils moments before his partner climaxed. Some appreciated it. Some didn’t. Why did you enjoy that so much? Were you partaking in the ultimate form of control? That sort of thing is dangerous, isn’t it? The human brain can go for four minutes without oxygen, two without lasting damage. A few moments of breathlessness shouldn’t matter. Tell that to your angry exes. Shut up. Also, the same chemicals are released during a hanging as they are during orgasm. Are you trying to justify yourself, you creep? No. Not at all. I’m simply trying to understand. His mind ventured forward, spiraling towards the weeks of his preparation, the days before Clara’s abduction.

The murky corners of the internet were familiar to Charles, but his tastes never plunged into anything overtly illegal. His curiosity led him on wild goose chases, uncovering a wide range of strange and disturbing content. One evening, he stumbled upon a link which directed him to a site with a large, bold title: Tips on How to Waterboard a Friend. He was greeted with stark white text against a black background, which accompanied pictures and videos. Charles took a moment to recall a bulleted list highlighting the do’s and don’ts of undertaking such an endeavor. Fierce struggling with anything but leather straps could lead to broken bones. Leather straps: check. The first step is important. A damp towel needs to be securely, but not tightly, draped over your friend’s face. Charles improvised a makeshift cloth with two clips on either side. Sprinkle, don’t pour the water upon the fastened cloth. This lowers the chance of hypothermia. Hmm. Serious business. No more than twenty seconds of saturation. No less than fifteen seconds of recovery. She’ll be coughing and gasping. And begging, no doubt. The psychological ramifications could last a lifetime. Don’t overdo it. We’ll see about that. Follow all these steps to the letter, and let the fun begin. Yes, let’s.

The detailed instructions on ‘safe waterboarding’ were fascinating, but it was the visual media which really piqued Charles’ interest. Videos were uploaded from unknown sources, each pairing a masked captor with a bound female victim. The struggles were intense against their straps, as were the subsequent screams. ANYTHING! I’LL DO ANYTHING YOU WANT! This wouldn’t deter their tormenters, of course. The longest video was forty-five minutes. By the end, the female subject was noticeably pallid, with trembling limbs and bloodshot eyes. But there was another video which fascinated Charles the most. In it, the female participant wasn’t initially bound. Instead, she was instructed to assume her place on the bench. There was a strange, cold look to her eyes which seemed to immediately disclose its origins: she had been through this many times before. She struggled like the rest for the duration, but offered no screams or sobs during her recovery. Charles found himself caressing his computer screen, tracing the woman he’d never meet with his finger. She was broken. She truly was broken.

At once, his mind snapped from retrospection to reality. Finally, Clara was fully secured on the bench. He gathered himself for a spell before pacing towards the sink. He filled a watering can meant for plants to the brim, then set it near the bench. Okay. That’s done. Where’s the cloth? He reached into the same bag where he retrieved Clara’s restraints and pulled it out. Good. Everything is in order. Now we wait.

It wasn’t long until Clara seemed to pull herself out of her daze. Her eyes reluctantly opened, and the realization quickly seeped in. Excellent. Now say hello. Leaning over from the inclined end of the bench, Charles curtly waved his hand and smiled. “Welcome back, Clara.” He took a little time before clearing his throat, then gestured towards a cassette player on a nearby table, close enough for Carla to see. “Before we start, I’d like to play you something.” Charles pressed play on the ancient piece of equipment, which commenced the recording of an unknown man’s voice. “Hello, fellas. Just thought you’d like to hear what it’s like to waterboard a bitch.” The screaming began before he finished his sentence, unmistakably authentic in its presentation. “NOOOOO! STOP! HELP ME GOD, PLEASE! PLEASE! STOP—” Charles abruptly stopped the tape as if to answer the desperate appeal. He then leaned over Clara once again. “Well, then. Let’s begin, shall we?”


Her trembling hands scrabbled at the tarnished brass of the door knob, willing it to open. Was it stuck? Was it broken? She clung desperately to the hope that one more effort would cause the door to creak open, that one more turn would give her her chance at freedom. But the heavy tread of booted feet approaching from behind her told her that time was running out. A quick glance behind spurred another frenzied struggle with the door. Just as she heard the clicking of the knob give way to a resounding crack beneath her hands, as she felt an impossible wave of hope rising within her, she felt his arms clasped around her waist, pulling her inexorably towards her fate. Clara struggled hard, trying anything and everything in her desperation for escape. Her elbow glanced off soft flesh, her bare foot made contact with his shin, but nothing seemed to slow him. She choked back screams, sobs, a storm of emotion threatening to break. No one was coming to help her. No one was coming to save her. Clara was completely, and fully, at Charles’ mercy.

Just when she thought he would force her onto the bench, she felt his rough hands closing around her throat, squeezing, choking. Her bound hands clutched at his, helpless to break his hold. Her lungs struggled for air, her back arching against him as she writhed against him. All she could feel was the primal need for oxygen, the pain of not receiving it, the knowledge that it was all futile. Grainy multicolored spots appeared in her vision, her eyes wide open, staring. Gradually, her struggles weakened as the spots grew, slowly filling her field of vision until her eyes rolled back into her head and she slipped into unconsciousness. Clara peacefully drifted in and out of consciousness, at one time feeling the rough floor moving beneath her before surrendering to sleep. She felt a slight reassuring awareness of leather enclosing her wrists, groaning softly as she blinked, the bare concrete of her prison coming into focus. The sensations were returning – her back was scraped and raw, her neck sore and bruised. The panic returned all at once, her eyes blankly meeting his at his wry greeting, the terror visible just beneath her clouded irises.

She let him speak, let him show her her fate, let him show her what she would become, her silence a testament to the roiling seas of fear swelling in her chest. The screams and cries of the unnamed woman echoed in her head even after he paused the tape, coiling around happy memories, winding themselves through the gardens of her mind, telling her – no, promising her – a lifetime of misery. She trembled in place, the panic and terror and despair all growing and expanding and combining and changing until it all burst out of her in one long loud exclamation. “What do you want from me?” Her fists opened and closed, her eyes shifting from terrified to accusing to despairing confusion. “Haven’t I given you everything you wanted?” Her voice cracked, the emotion slowly draining from her face and body, now as still and limp as a corpse. She stared listlessly at the blank wall to her left, her blue eyes dull. “If you want to – rape – me, just do it. All of this – foreplay? – is unnecessary. I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll be, whoever you want me to be.” Clara drew a dry tongue over her chapped lips. “Please don’t do this to me.”


Charles dropped the watering can beside his foot. The word ‘rape’ momentarily stunned him. She gave you the go-ahead to rape her. Well isn’t that nice. He stepped back from the bench, his resolve wavering noticeably. Go on, then. Rape her. Imagine scenarios of seduction and spread-open legs. Fill her up and be done with it. What are you waiting for? Charles buried his face into his right hand, his teeth grinding underneath clenched lips. Words climbed out of his mouth after a time. “This isn’t about fucking rape.” Clara’s silence seemed to voice the obvious question. What the fuck is this about, then? His shoulders drooped in defeat. A part of him ached to assert his pathos with such clarity that Clara would have no choice but to applaud. “Oh. Of course,” she’d say with newly enlightened eyes before gleefully nodding at her straps. Instead, Charles whispered with tempered concession. “You wouldn’t understand if I told you.”

He stood militantly while facing away from Clara, his hands holding firm against the small of his back. “Well, I guess it’s safe to say that our agreement is null and void after that stunt you just pulled.” Charles languidly shook his head while tsk-tsking in mock disappointment. “You should have just resigned yourself to the bench when I first told you so. I’d have simply given you a good scare before letting you go. But now, I’m not so sure.” Charles teasingly traced his fingertips along the leather restraints as he circled the bench. Leaning forward at her feet, he visibly acknowledged Clara’s bound body like a condescending diety. “Honestly, I should just follow through with my earlier threat and disappear for a week. Let you starve.” There was a pause before his face shifted again, passing Clara a wink. “But in all honesty, I’d hate to sacrifice those alluring birthing hips of yours.” He sighed and plopped himself onto the nearby bed. “So I guess I’ll ask you again. Are you going to do what I tell you from now on?” Clara, in no uncertain terms, nodded her acceptance. Charles clenched his eyes shut. Words. They’re just words. You have to push harder.

A moment passed. Then two. His eyes finally pried themselves open, looking towards Clara with brooding sympathy. “I hope you understand. Unless I prove myself to you, you’ll keep thinking I’m weak. I’m sorry.” With that, Charles clamped the cloth across Clara’s face, which was held in place by two wedge-shaped obstructions on either side. It’s a necessary evil. Do what you must. He lifted the watering can from his side and began to pour.

Clara was motionless at first. Then the struggle began. Her hands clenched, her pelvis twisted, her back arched. Pining for escape. Finding none. Charles continued to pour. It’s only been ten seconds. Poor thing. Hang in there, sweetie. Gurgles now. Fifteen seconds. Clara was saying something through the drenched cloth. Begging, most likely. Charles wasn’t sure because he refused to hear. Time! Twenty seconds. All right, that’s enough. No. Not quite. The leather straps were straining tightly as Charles pressed onward, counting silently to himself. Twenty-five seconds. What the hell are you doing? Making a point. She must not forget this. Ever. Thirty seconds. She’s going to hurt herself, fighting like that. Nothing that can’t be patched up afterwards. Thirty-five seconds. She’s clawing at the damn bench. She’s going to tear her own fingernails off. She should be thankful if that’s the worst of all this. Forty-five seconds. Clara’s mouth was stretched open, her torso hunched upwards, a grotesque statue of anguished desperation. You idiot. You’re going to kill her. I told you before. Two minute leeway. Fifty-five seconds. A minute. Charles stopped pouring and tore the cloth from Clara’s face, freeing her to cough, gasp, retch. Let her onto the floor, for Christ’s sakes. Charles loosened to the leather straps around Carla’s wrists and ankles, allowing her to wriggle haphazardly towards the cold concrete.

Congratulations. You went through with it. You’ve graduated to a sick, twisted fuck. Charles stood still, looking blankly ahead as Clara writhed at his feet. His eyes surveyed the basement until he found the fridge he installed weeks prior. It’s there if I need it. A vacuum cleaner stood cryptically beside it, challenging the shadows to label its purpose. All part of the plan. Charles looked down upon Clara with steely, unrepentant eyes. “It’s up to you if that has to happen again.” He crouched near her, respecting her unrestrained arms with a braced stance. “Maybe this time, you’ll take me seriously.” He lifted himself and sauntered towards a nearby closet, fetching a mop which he leaned against the bench. “When you’re done, you can clean up the water. Then make your way towards the fridge over there, please.”


What did he mean, this wasn’t about rape? Why else would a middle-aged man kidnap a young woman? Why else would he have her act out that pointless fantasy of his? Why else would she be wearing these lace underthings? Everything about him was a mystery, an enigma that she wasn’t sure would ever be solved, or that she wanted to solve. He oscillated between uncertainty, and dominance, suddenly unearthing new plans or scrapping old ones, in all things set off by the smallest remark. Clara let her body hang limp from her restraints, concentrating on the feeling of the cold leather as he kept talking. Words piled upon words piled upon words – all shoving her defeat into her face as he gloated over her failure to comply, to escape. Teasing her with threats of starvation, all false. She nodded when she was supposed to – did it really mean anything in the end? – and kept quiet when spoken to. Don’t set him off, don’t make him angry, don’t make him do something he’ll regret.

It was all for naught. With a strange calm, she felt the cloth cover her face, still unsure whether he would actually follow through. The same feeling persisted as she felt the water begin to trickle through the cloth, wetting her lips and entering her nose, gradually pulled by gravity. It was almost serene at first. It might not be so bad. She held her breath, letting the water enter her nostrils until something happened, something snapped. She was drowning, she desperately expelled water until her lungs emptied, she clutched her palms, trying anything, everything to make it stop. Clara could feel her lungs burning, the taste of the tap water on her lips, the knowledge that he was watching, making it happen, getting off on it. She tried to open her mouth to plead, to beg, only to be met with a mouthful of water. In a fit of panic, her back arched off the table, her fingernails desperately scratching at the wood table beneath her. It was an eternity of agony.

It finally stopped. He stopped. It all stopped. The moment hung in the air, motionless. In a single moment, she was free, water flowing from her face. Eyes blankly open, seeing nothing for a moment until her breath returned to her and she gagged from the bitterness of the water, eyes tightly shut against the downward flow of the water. As soon as he released her, she fell helplessly onto the concrete, short coughs and retches bringing the rest of water to the surface. A strong, stubborn feeling of abhorrence arose within her, accompanied with a slow simmering helplessness. Her eyes met his, a grey veil separating them from ever knowing the thoughts of the other. She completed his commands thoughtlessly, leaving dark grey stains on the concrete as a testament to what he would do and walking meekly to the designated refrigerator. But next time… There won’t be a next time.


Watching Clara’s defeated march towards the refrigerator disrupted Charles’ hardened scowl which he tried so hard to maintain. His mind spiraled from accomplishment to unwelcome sobriety, and a peculiar feeling of panic began to swell within his conscience. Well, there you go, you evil fuck. You’ve actually tortured another human being. No turning back now. He glanced down towards his hands, clenching and unclenching his fingers as if performing a system check. Ah, yes. The instruments of her destruction. What’s next for the poor girl beyond sadistic interrogation techniques reserved for terrorists? A familiar voice burst forth from the recesses of Charles’ instincts, weighing its essential opinion. She wasn’t going to take you seriously until you actually did something. The ball is in her court, now. Twitches of regret remained, but their manageability was now ensured. In a way, Charles’ internal turmoil was a welcome relief. At least now you know that you have a shred or two of humanity left.

The look on Charles’ face suggested a compromise of emotions as he stood beside the refrigerator to face Clara. He drummed his fingers against the side as some sort of deranged invitation. “Well, I guess you know what this is for.” Uhm. She probably doesn’t. Not everyone is as mentally warped as you, buddy. The door of the fridge was opened to reveal a hollowed-out interior save for a makeshift bench towards the back. “There’s an oxygen feed so you won’t suffocate. And the cold won’t have any lasting effects on you. I’ll let you out after a few hours.” So you’re trying to sell her on her own torment now. There really is something wrong with you. Charles shook off the awkwardness of his presentation and stared at her intently. Give me some sign that you’ve learned your lesson, and I won’t have to do this. A moment passed. Then two. “Clara, look at me.” Clara’s eyes surrendered to his command after a reluctant pause. Charles could see a rising hope of acquittal balanced against an acknowledgement of powerlessness, and he was pleased. With that, he shut the door closed and dusted his hands. “After lunch, then. We’ll have it upstairs.”

Clara’s mouth was taped shut, her arms secured behind her back and the binds adjusted around her feet to severely restrict her mobility. Charles guided her carefully up the stairs towards the unseen world that awaited above. “I assume you know the consequences if you try to pull any stunts up here.” Clara’s eyes offered a blank look of acceptance. He  glared one final warning before reaching for the doorknob. As the door creaked opened, natural light flooded towards them to reveal a large kitchen with several stoves flanking a steel refrigerator. Clara was led towards an island which seemed to divide the floor and was released. “You can meander around if you like. Stay away from the windows, please.” Everything seemed clean and orderly, even underneath the dim lighting of the closed blinds. There was a large living room with a flat screen television and various console systems strewn about. Paintings hung on the walls with various subject matter. All the adjacent rooms were locked from access, save for the bathroom. Soft music was playing from a speaker in the ceiling.

Clara wandered the living room with jerky strides, seemingly not sure of what to do with herself. Charles watched her admirably, the calm nature of her exploration reassuring the confidence in his experiment. After a time, Clara inadvertently locked eyes with her observer, darting them away with mild contempt. Charles approached Clara as if taking a cue, placing a hand on her cheek which grudgingly accepted its touch. “Cook. Clean. Fuck. That’s what I want out of you. We’ll get there in time. I promise.” He smiled warmly before retreating towards the kitchen to collect items from the fridge. “Life needn’t be so bad, Clara,” he mused aloud while busying himself with knobs on the stove.


It was all so surreal, like a bad dream that refused to end. Clara stood in the middle of her captor’s kitchen, tape glinting from her mouth and wrists. The light slipped by the blinds in long wide slivers, dust motes glinting. Her emotions were dulled, scraped raw by the the unending sensations. Stickiness around her wrists. Smells of tap water. Damp feet, dripping hair, weak knees. Confusion. It was all arbitrary, all fickle, superficial. Goosebumps still remaining from the chill of the refrigerator downstairs. Resigning herself to another torture, another meaningless reflex wrung out of her body. Couldn’t he see? Doesn’t he notice? Every breath seemed to rasp through her lungs, the oxygen tasting sweet against the bitter metallic feeling on her tongue. Her eyes wandered, her feet meandered. Blinds on the windows, soft sounds in the kitchen, carpet beneath her sore feet. She was safe. For now. After lunch.

Sometimes she ran her eyes over him, sizing him up but never concluding anything beyond a slight contempt. Sometimes he looked at her, but she never noticed. Sometimes their eyes met and she saw something deeply buried within his eyes. One time he placed a hand on her cheek mechanically, as if it were expected, called for. She stood still, neutral eyes assessing him blankly, questions cyclically repeating in her mind. Couldn’t he remember? Did he remember his promise? What did he want? Did he want her? Did he want her obedience – compliance? What did he want her to do now? She was left standing, mind struggling to reconcile her situation, murmuring softly beneath the gag. The hope of escape was slowly fading into the distance, covered by an ever-looming blanket of darkness.


Even as he was immersing himself with the proper utilization of his bachelor-level culinary skills, Charles keenly observed Clara from afar as she blankly wandered the perimeter of the couch. After some preparation, Charles presented Clara with a fold-out tray of Lipton noodle soup and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. He instructed her with a wave of his hand to sit on the couch and claimed a pleasant seat beside her. He loosened her mouth gag and let it fall simply to her chin, glaring a silent warning before spoon-feeding her mouthfuls of soup. Charles casually expressed hollow encouragements as Clara ate robotically. “There we go. Thatta girl. Swallow it all. Good, good.” Once the soup was finished, the sandwich was quartered with a knife and consumed with uninspired bites. When all was said and done, the gag was promptly reinstated. Charles forced a smile and nodded his approval of Clara’s cooperation. “Very good. We’re making headway, I think.”

With absentminded curiosity, Charles turned on the television with a nearby remote. After some aimless channel surfing, a news program beckoned his attention with a scrolling bulletin. A sinking feeling immediately overwhelmed Charles’s senses. He knew what was coming, and his eyes widened accordingly. “Police are investigating the probable abduction of a nurse near her home last night in Fredericskburg, Virginia. No suspects have been named but officials are hopeful that the questioning of neighbors will lead to clues regarding her disappearance.” He watched transfixed as the broadcast delved into various particulars, including the potential involvement of the FBI and a tenacious campaign to uncover potential witnesses. After a quiet moment of brute analysis, his curiosity shifted towards Clara. Way to go, dumbass. You’ve just instilled hope back into this bitch. With a sudden wave of anger, Charles kicked over the tray of food and stood over her with clenched fists, obstructing her view of the program. His breathing gradually slowed, mirroring an ominous calm which quickly rose to negate his ferocity. “Downstairs,” he staunchly commanded. “Now.”


The food was warm, and most likely nourishing. However, even as the soup washed down her throat, Clara couldn’t taste it. She kept her eyes fixed on the spoon before her, a residual blush suffusing her cheeks. His hands were steady, his face empty. She sighed quietly when she finished, metallic traces of the tap water lingering within her nose. There barely enough time to swallow the last bit of her food before he pushed the gag back into her mouth – eliciting nothing but a small, but brief, moan of protest. Clara leaned back into the welcome softness of the couch, eyes drifting closed as the heat spread through her. Her head nodded against her chest as she weakly struggled to stay awake. Eventually, as she was about to drift over the edge, he turned the television on.

The sound of sharp, professional voices brought her back to her senses. As the words slowly filtered through her mind, she suddenly realized something. They were talking about her. They were talking about her abduction. They were looking for her. They were hopeful. Her eyes widened and she stiffened, not daring to look at her captor. She blinked slowly, face studiously blank as she tried not to show her excitement – but. Clara started at the sudden sound as Charles upturned the tray, scared eyes darting down, away from his. He had realized, and he was angry. Clara took a deep breath, her silence greeting his demand. It was no use struggling. He was stronger than her, faster than her – this was his house. She steeled herself for what she knew was coming, and stood. Clara cast a final glance at his dangerously calm features, and walked through the still open door, down the cold stairs, and back into the basement.


Clara was hastily ushered down the creaky stairs and forced upon a chair with a yank of her shoulders. Charles squatted in front of her with heavy, composed breaths while locking down her eyes. “I want you to know something,” he began with his index finger extended towards the bridge of Clara’s nose. His mouth opened as if to continue, but was interrupted by his eyes wandering over his shoulder towards the door. What the hell are you looking at? Expecting a SWAT team to burst through the door and nail you? That broadcast was par for the course. Standard procedure. You must have expected it. Calm your ass down and concentrate. He craned his neck towards his front again, refocusing on Clara. “They’re looking for you, but you’ll never be found.” Charles’ eyes momentarily flickered, and he hated himself for it. You don’t believe yourself anymore, do you? That’s fine. Keep going. You’re not done yet. “But even if they did…” The pupils in Charles’ eyes dilated slightly as he bridged a considerable gap between he and Clara. “I’d kill us both before I’d let them take me.” He allowed his proclamation to linger ostensibly in the air. Hmm. Your delivery could have been better. But it really does’t matter, does it? You meant it. In the end, if things get dicey, that’s what is going to count.

“Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way,” Charles exhaled while lifting himself off his knees, the intensity in his voice waning. “I think it’s time we tried something out.” He strolled towards the fridge that was located against the back wall, turning his attention towards the vacuum beside it. He plugged it into a nearby outlet and wheeled it beside the bed from their earlier role play, almost running out of cord slack in the process. Then, reaching underneath the bed, he retrieved a transparent bag with one circular plastic piece jutting out of its side. It soon revealed itself as a large, vacuum-seal pouch, roughly the size of an average human being. “I’ve decided that we’re going to sleep together every night. But I definitely don’t trust you without some precautions. So there’s really only one way to make sure that you won’t… can’t do anything as I sleep.” After sprawling the bag upon the bed, he motioned for Clara with an eager index finger. “Let’s get that shit off of you,” he explained clinically, “so you can fold yourself into this thing.”


She found herself staring into his eyes, her own flickering worriedly as she tried to decipher his mood. He seemed unsettled, disconcerted, almost paranoid. Her gaze unconsciously followed his to the still open door, half-expecting someone to appear. Everything he said afterwards seemed halfhearted, as if he were questioning himself. But his final statement jerked her back to reality – away from fantasies of seeing her family again, of returning to work at the hospital, of finding peace again. Clara was helpless, and she was his. His words were a grim reminder of what he was capable of, just how far he had gone over the edge. Clara shrunk away from him, dreading his next move, the punishment she knew would be coming. With a series of deep jagged breaths, Clara gathered herself into a semblance of inquisitive calmness, watching him wheel the innocuous-looking household appliance near the bed and then produce a large plastic bag, uncannily resembling a body bag.

She recognized the small black piece of plastic protruding from the bag – was that a vacuum seal? – and swallowed nervously. With an effort, Clara pushed down the urge to run, knowing that it was useless. The door was open, true, but she was in no condition to outrun a grown man, even if she hadn’t had rope around her wrists and ankles. Sleep together? Her eyes widened in fear, muscles tensed as she tried desperately to figure out how she would breathe if he sealed her within the bag. Please don’t kill me. Wooden legs brought her over to him, a mannequin limping toward the inevitable.


The fear in Clara’s face, contrasted against her unquestioning obedience, released a primal wave of satisfaction which surged throughout Charles’ body. A carnal craving seized his loins for a moment afterwards, which he curtailed with a slow, shuddery sigh. He studied her expression as she approached the bed and quickly calculated her concerns. “Don’t worry. This thing will give you all the air you need.” He took a moment to present Clara with a plastic instrument which he retrieved from his pocket. It had a rubber mouthpiece connected to an oblong opening, with two cylindrical protrusions on the top; it seemed to resemble a piece of diver’s gear.

After tending to Clara’s binds, Charles shifted his attention towards the bag on the bed and patted an invitation within its pouch. “Okay, then. Time to hop in, dear.” Clara morosely complied with her instructions to pin her arms behind her back and to fold her knees to her sides. Charles powered on the vacuum and fastened its detachable hose to the bag’s circular intake; it wasn’t long until it noticeably began to crinkle and shrink. Clara was fully sealed a minute later, the heavy transparent plastic molding itself tightly against the contours of her body. The vacuum was removed and wheeled away before Charles reintroduced his familiar pocket knife. He cut two slits near Clara’s nostrils and one longer slit near her mouth and affixed his mechanism accordingly. Clara’s labored inhalation through the apparatus completed a successful trial.

Charles circled the bed slowly with admiration before lolling himself beside Clara. “So, this is how you’ll sleep every night beside me. We’ll have to make sure you use the hell out of the bathroom beforehand so that you don’t make a mess for me to clean up in the morning.” He smiled, an aberrant, callous smile, before his eyelids began to droop. “Time for a nap,” he announced while tending to the alarm function on his phone. “I’d focus on getting used to this if I were you. You’ll be graduating from one hour to eight later tonight.” He draped an arm around Clara’s confined waist as a light sleep overtook him, fraught with airy, ephemeral dreams.


Clara was not quite morose; being far too scared to be sullen or irritable. She took a deep breath, not much comforted by the small – breathing device? – he produced. A cursory rub of the wrists, a double check of the blood circulating through her ankles, a perfunctory lick of the lips, and she crawled into the bag, following the muffled instructions. She obediently placed her hands behind her back and folded her legs up beneath her. Her breaths came short and shallow, a small misty spot forming on the plastic immediately in front of her. As the air began draining from the bag, Clara closed her eyes. She struggled to breathe, short gasps becoming more frantic as her lungs screamed for air. The plastic drew tight around her body, freezing her in her current uncomfortable position. Clara tried to move, to somehow scratch an opening into the plastic, but she was already immobilized and faint without oxygen. It seemed like an eternity, hovering between full consciousness and unconsciousness.

Groggily, she felt a sharp blade cutting through the plastic – first at her nose, then at her mouth. Something tasting of rubber was inserted through the openings, and with a sudden start Clara could breathe again. She knew he was saying something, most likely threatening or gleeful or both. She could hear something through the tight slick material, but nothing registered. Except – “This is how you’ll sleep every night…” Clara let the thought slip from her mind, concentrating on breathing and not the unwelcome feeling of his possessive embrace. Eventually, she drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep, a statue in the arms of her sculptor.


A series of fleeting, colorless dreams projected themselves against Charles’ mind. Comforting memories of his father’s protection and nostalgic board game triumphs played like snippets from home VHS movies until they slowly dissolved into static. With a sudden introduction, one particular dream emerged from the void to explore his first kiss─an unceremonious experience which occurred when he was ten. An innocent game of House had intensified at Wendy’s residence (That was her name, wasn’t it? He was halfway certain of it), and Charles found himself woefully unprepared for her advances. He was soon straddled in the living room couch, with Wendy’s inexperienced tongue exploring the reluctant confines of his mouth. With one firm shrug, he pushed her off his lap and stood over her with perturbed bewilderment. The looming influence of his mother’s dogmatic weariness flagged all sorts of warnings within his psyche, automating his rebuff. They remained friends, but Wendy never sought any attempts at affection again─and that suited Charles just fine. He discovered something about himself that day, a fundamental attribute which adapted itself as a solemn vow: he would never be caught off-guard again by a woman. He would always the one to arrange the first date, make the first move, achieve the first orgasm. He secretly loathed any female-dominant sexual positions for reasons he couldn’t quite place. It’s because she’s the one in control, isn’t it? She makes the choices, she fucks you the way she wants to fuck you, and you lay there and accept it. Nuh uh. Not for you, poindexter.

Charles’s eyes opened with a wince, impulsively reacting to the sound of his phone alarm. Clara’s plasticized body slowly came into focus, shifting only slightly during their brief intermission. He felt somewhat refreshed; the concern over the news broadcast had almost completely left him. Charles observed that Clara was breathing normally; he assumed her pleads and shrieks would alert him otherwise. With a start, he leapt upon his feet and quickly realized that Clara was sleeping. That’s pretty amazing given the circumstances, isn’t it? She’s well on her way to becoming exactly what you want her to be. A curious emotion swelled within Charles’ emotional core. It wasn’t love, he was quite sure of that, but perhaps a derivative of it, the same way heroin derivatives from opium. He couldn’t find an appropriate word to describe it. But it hatched nonetheless, grew a pair of wings, and perched itself upon his shoulder, whispering irrefutable truths which helped him come to terms with his intentions. If you can never sleep beside Clara as a traditional lover, so be it. You’ll happily accept this as a substitute. He would never have her trust, but he would have her, period. With a relaxed smile, he began to search for a pair of scissors, ready to release his butterfly from her cocoon.


Clara had never been one for relationships, or romance for that matter. Sure, she had that bubbly personality that was characteristic of most nurses, but there was determined hardness beneath all the bubbles that most men could never get past. It had served her well in high school (dealing with drama swiftly and efficiently) and college (staying up all night studying for a final was as simple as breathing) but made her uncompromising on the smallest things. Simple things that involved deciding which restaurant to go to, what to wear the next night, often resulted in explosive fights and copious amounts of shouted words and no regrets. She learned to channel it eventually, directing her energies towards getting through school and soon Clara learned to bend, giving way on her opinions to gain the friendship of others. And to a certain extent, it worked. Her resentment bled out in various ways, and she gained a reputation for having an explosive temper. But none of that mattered now. It was too difficult to gather enough strength to move, let alone become angry.

She awoke with a start and a sudden realization that Charles was longer beside her. The plastic had warmed against her, slick and clouded with moisture. She breathed slowly and calmly, shifting the contraption in her mouth slightly. Clara tested her arms and found there was a little wiggle room, with a little effort she managed to bring her arms around to her front. As best she could against the confines of the plastic, she attempted to stretch the stiffness from her muscles. This can’t be healthy, can it? A particular bad knot in her shoulder caused a soft cry of pain and she quickly backtracked. Where are you, Charles? Hasn’t it been long enough?

The Vagabond & the Princess

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


It happened so quickly… 

In one moment, the king ordered the execution of the defiant vagabond standing in his presence as nearby guards rushed to seize him. 

The next moment found the king on all fours, bowing before the condemned as his royal robes sprawled comically around his body. The guards had also backed themselves some distance away before kneeling their own grudging reverence.

In fact, everyone within earshot of the kingdom’s grand hall seemed entranced by the shocking powers of the cloaked vilifier… everyone except the Princess, who sat beside the imperial throne in abject horror. Her father had entertained an audience with a self-proclaimed soothsayer, who had quite the captious appraisal to share about the king’s steady reign over the land of Bresau. Insulting would have been putting it mildly.

Now, the guest with an apparent death wish had turned the tables with simple, irresistible, irrefutable orders. The golden voice of a wandering Midas, it seemed.

The vagabond took a few moments to shift his eyes about, studying his work with a satisfied smile before picking up where he left off.

“Very good, very good. Now kiss the floor upon which I stand, my king.”

His wish was the monarch’s command, and a furious gaze followed soon after. The hushed silence that accompanied it felt heavy in the air, and the soothsayer savored every moment.

“Well then. I suppose there are trained assassins and opportunistic soldiers to consider,” the vagabond declared through a musing sigh. “So hear me well: should I be harmed or killed, the king’s fate shall accompany mine. My pain is his pain. My death is his death. Doubt me not, as you have witnessed my powers firsthand. Try me not, or suffer the lasting consequences of your folly.”

The covenant was undeniable. The soothsayer’s words were magic… they spoke truths into existence. His destiny was now inexorably tied with the king.

“One final word…” His arms folded in a gesture of impatience. “If you must know, my name is Charles. Curse the name with all your seething hatred, should that befit your tendencies.” With an exaggerated, almost ridiculous bow, the soothsayer excused himself from the humbled heap of the king, leaving those he touched with his voice beyond words, beyond comprehension.

___

After his royal rebuke, the vagabond made himself quite at home within the grand castle. He moved from wing to wing with a carefree smile, one that also carried with it a frightful air of invincibility. Business carried on as best it could despite the persistence of his presence. Normalcy had returned with a large asterisk, or so it appeared.

The curious thing was the vagabond seemed uninterested with making himself a nuisance beyond his own whims and fancies. He also seemed to have a personal code of honor, never having used his godly voice beyond the initial point made in the king’s throne room. Despite this, however, there were heavy, hateful stares, sneers, and spiteful whispers from the castle’s inhabitants.

“How do we kill you?” came one brazen question from a frustrated soldier.

“With kindness,” Charles returned with his usual cool, collected air.

From afar, the Princess occasionally caught the corner of Charles’ eye as he made his daily rounds, hiding in distant shadows or peering from distant windows. Perhaps she hoped her glares would somehow erase him from existence, or perhaps she was building the courage to confront him. In the end, despite her captivating beauty, he gave her stalkings little thought.

Finally, inevitably, the Princess made her approach.

“Charles,” she called aloud, walking uneasily towards the man she named.

“Hmm… yes?” A genuine look of surprise appeared on the vagabond’s face as he washed alone in the public bathing square, his arrival having caused a grumbling exodus moments before.

The Princess would see a man with a rugged build… a peasant’s build, with broad shoulders and calloused hands. Vigilant brown eyes complemented dark wavy hair that framed a surprisingly handsome face, save for a faded scar that traveled from his left ear to the middle of his forehead. His skin held a soft ochre glow from years of the sun’s tenacious touch, and stubble gave his chin and cheeks a faint shadow.

“Charles,” she calmly said again, collecting herself and her thoughts. “Let us speak to one another.”

The vagabond turned to the Princess with brief, narrow slits of eyes before comically furrowing his brow, as if entertaining a heavy thought. “Very well,” he relented with a smile. “What have ye to say?”

“It’s about my father,” she mustered out, her gaze almost pleading. “You had him kiss the floor of the royal hall. You’ve since forbade him to sit upon his own throne.”

“Yes, I did,” Charles reflected solemnly. “A punishment, I admit, for rushing to violence against me.” A pause coincided with another consideration. “He should consider himself lucky for enduring such a… light penalty.”

The Princess visibly prepared herself again. “Word travels… somehow, someway. The neighboring kingdoms have made it into a joke, but our enemies…” A stifled sob seemed to catch in her throat before she continued.

“Our enemies are emboldened by the prospect of a king being controlled by some outside influence. They’ve initiated a number of attacks in recent days, bold and fierce, claiming victory in several.”

The desperation was evident in her voice now, and the Princess’s eyes flared with anger.

“Your powers have made our kingdom weaker… have insulted and degraded us… degraded me…”

“My powers have no effect upon you, specifically,” Charles explained with a tinge of impatience. “Perhaps you didn’t recognize your own exemption in the throne room, but even my abilities carry their own handicaps.”

A look of wide-eyed realization lifted to the surface of the Princess’ face, and the obvious question followed. “Why only me?” she asked with a hint of exasperation.

“A lengthy story for another day,” Charles said dismissively. “Should it ever fancy me to tell you, I suppose.”

The Princess kept still near the bathhouse steps, dumbfounded. The vagabond’s watchful eyes studied her, then pulled away with slight embarrassment.

“Funny how something so simple can have such a resounding impact,” Charles stated meditatively. “I suppose my impulses has the occasional… unintended consequence.” The silence that settled after his admission felt strangely uncomfortable.

“I’m late for something,” Charles declared with a bit of awkwardness as he started his climb up the slippery bathhouse steps. What the lazy vagabond could be possibly late for seemed to escape her understanding, but the Princess nonetheless nodded her acknowledgment.

“Join me tonight in the courtyard,” Charles finally proposed. “And we can negotiate.”

A heavy swallow accompanied another hesitant nod. The Princess then rushed a curtsy before excusing herself from the vagabond.

___

A crisp, starry night fell over the kingdom of Bresau. Charles, tending to one of his curious whims, had set a tent and campfire in the grassy yard of the castle square. A vagabond’s habits died hard, it seemed.

The Princess would meet at the rendezvous and find Charles laying on the cool grass with his elbows bent and hands tucked behind his head, looking up to the stars. Upon noticing the arrival of the Princess, he patted the ground beside him as an invitation. “Before we begin, join me for a minute.”

The Princess sighed impatiently. “I’m wearing a dress…” she began, but would nevertheless comply, despite her own misgivings.

The both of them lay for a moment looking up to the pitch black sky speckled with glowing white dots. The vagabond then broke the night’s chorus of chirps and croaks with a question. “Are you arranged to be wed?”

The Princess turned her head to Charles with a searing glare. “Why would ye care to…” The derision in her voice soon abandoned her, however.

“Not as of yet. There are nobles who push to court me, but–“

“Very well then,” Charles interrupted, his voice full of cheer. “I’ll make you an offer. Allow me to henceforth sleep beside you in your bed, and I will tell you everything… and perhaps reinstate your father to his throned glory.” His gaze locked upon the eyes of the Princess. “For the price of a night’s snore, knowledge shall be yours.”


Katya Greenleaf had been in the town center the day of the attack, in what she would later learn was among the first wave of the endtimes.

At first, she thought it a mere storm, her pace hurrying to get back to her cottage. Then the charging beasts descended to prove her otherwise. She ran, at least initially, before managing to subsume herself in the cold, calculating mindset of the wartime clinician. Triage. Treat who you could as best you could with what you had. Unfortunately there were few wounded, only the dead and the taken. Still, she tried, flitting as stealthily as she could across the town.

One man, the only identifiable one akongst the assailants, soon appeared, quickly ending up engaged with one of the few standing knights that remained in the villags—practically a boy. She could not help but watch, frozen in fear behind a set of crates.

Her consciousness slid over the blur of runes, mind unable to latch on enough to parse even one. Even the color of his eyes seemed an indiscernable mass. The girl broke from her paralysis once the scuffle finished.

The young knight scurried away as soon as he had an opening. Wise. Katya looked to the wounded man, breathing sharp as she fought with herself. He was obviously a prominent figure in conducting this slaughter; perhaps his death would prevent others. Her hands twitched.

Life needed to be preserved, regardless of ideology, intent, actions, regardless of anything.

“I’m Katya, lay still now, we’re going to get you fixed up, okay?” She tried to keep her voice comforting; human connection was often the only thing that kept the severely wounded clinging to life long enough for trearment.

Katya moved to kneel at him, beginning to suture. It seemed rather unecessary after a mere three stitches however, his flesh knit together to leave the man unscathed.

Before she could stand and draw back, he had grabbed her, his grip cold and firm as steel. A cthonic chill followed in the wake of his finger, the procedure allowing him plenty of time to regard her features.

She had a soft face and sharp jaw, doll-like lips lying under a button nose. A milkmaid braid as gold as sunshine crowned her head, pinned tight, and large forest green eyes stared fearfully back at him. Finally, she was released.

After an oddly genteel introduction, he vanished, taking the sieging horde with him.

There could be no knowing his motivations and intent for her, what the mark meant, only blind speculation. And there was little time for that in the aftermath.

Nightmares hounded her since, and though that was the case for most all the townsfolk, hers often took a less typical shape. Between the normal images of the sick and wounded and dying and dark were odd vignettes: plummeting through endless mists. A field of poppies, scarlet as loathing. Blood, so much blood, pooling into a grasping dark.

The years following hardened the village. Their once self-imposed insularity reached new heights as their trading partners were swallowed from the map—seemingly literally in some cases. Cirrane had become a bastion against the encroaching dark.

Thankfully their initial, watered down isolation helped the needed transition to complete independence. Few changes were needed for complete self-reliance, more for the increased defenss focus: the peace would not last forever, they knew. There was speculation as to what happened to the taken, but most viewed it as a worse death, being dragged to a wretched afterlife.

The people seemed to either galvanize in their resistance, or succumb to despair as scant few refugees reported the elimination of an ever-increasing amount of kingdoms. Too many people came to her for poison. Perhaps she shouldn’t have refused them—they may very well try more painful methods—but she found that removing access to an easier method helped curb some of the casualties. Too few.

It seemed the world was ending. She herself would rather try and cling to every moment of existence she could. Hence why she had not discussed her marking; it was unlikely anyone would accept any association with the perpetrator of the apocalypse.

It was a winter night when they next struck. Once-green fields lay covered in a snowy shroud, leaving the landscape a featureless canvas as far as the eye could see. A full moon hung low in the sky, mantling the scene in a pallid silver light.

Katya had joined the soldiers for the upcoming battle, nervously triple-checking her supplies in the back. In the best case scenario, there’d be wounded. In the worst, they’d all be gone.

But the sight of the crimson-mantled man emerging from the portal sent a primal jolt through her, something not entirely fear. Perhaps. . .perhaps the slaughter could be avoided?

Decked in the white robes of a battlefield nurse, Katya resembled an ethereal wraith flitting to the front, at least in color and cut. Her braid—now only shoulder length—peeked loose at her neck from under the wimple; a plague of scarlet fever years ago had forced many a haircut, herself included. It was only logical that as one of the few treating the afflicted, she end up as such.

With an iron that belied her fear, she spoke when up front, soft and firm. There was much she wished to say, to ask, but lives were at stake.

“Years ago, you promised we’d be spared in exchange for you marking me.”—the girl extended that same arm, sleeves drawn—”Would you break that vow?”

It was a gambit that was unlikely to succeed: though he had indicated a regard for etiquette—at least on a surface level—she knew precious little about his regard for oaths. Not all supernatural creatures were bound by them; another tack would be needed.

“If I were to willingly join you, would you spare them again?” A waver could be detected now, the words joined by wisps of chilled breath.

The weight of the dagger in her boot seemed to grow as if in reminder. He had bound their lived together, supposedly. If the need for leverage arose, perhaps her life would hold weight enough to save the village, if threatened.

Life needed to be preserved, after all, and the cost of one could very well save many here.


The confrontation of the healer girl brought forth a sort of embarrassed grimace to the face of the Shadow Prince. Her nurse’s attire meant nothing to his forces—they were vicious enough to ignore the battlefield etiquette towards disregarding medics—but its significance spoke to the gospel of light. She was a helper, a healer, and now sought to be a selfless sacrifice.

The dark forces at his sides remained primed for slaughter, hinged upon his order, like rabid attack dogs pulling tautly upon their master’s leashes. And yet, the Shadow Prince held his tongue, refusing the command that would almost certainly overwhelm the steadfast knights and the draw of their swords.

“…if you were willing to join me.” Charôţh tasted the words presented to him, plunging his mind into the realm of possibility. There had been scant occasions when a woman had roused his interest above his lust for conquest, but the healer girl had awoken something primal. Even those of the dark were privy to spiritual revelation, and it was beyond certain he and she were woven. There was the promise of ventures across euphoric planes that transcended the thrusts of hips and throaty moans…

The mark of Ætranos had been little more than a formality. A bi-product of his unexpected fascination, an empyrean oath that could be broken with only the cost of loneliness… which at one point, would have been an acceptable forfeit. There had simply been no time for loneliness, not during his rampages across now conquered lands. But now his life’s ambitions were nearing their inevitable climax… and what then? What would there be left to dominate?

Indeed, the mark was simply an invitation for fate’s word, as it were. And now, before his very eyes, fate seemed to be speaking quite clearly. 

“Are you sure you’re willing, woman?” the Shadow Prince posed while stacking his arms across his chest. “Your life as it has been would vanish forever. For the rest of your days you would accompany my side as my betrothed.” As if his betrothed almost escaped his tongue, but his boldness was quick to make the correction.

“You would share my bed, tending to my whims and fancies… experience things beyond the scope of your comprehension, beyond fear.” Charôţh’s index finger raised, as if to say you mustn’t bring fear, fair maiden. Not to this agreement.

“If these conditions are acceptable to you,” Charôţh concluded, “then I shall concede towards withdrawal once more.” He then stepped to the side, allowing a path into the black, swirling void behind him.

“After you, if you’re so willing,” the Shadow Prince smiled while extending his arm. “But first, I must know your name.”


Her heart beat in the cage of her chest like a hummingbird’s wings; a bead of sweat dripped down the back of her neck even in the biting winter air. The mere act of regarding that inhuman army was taxing, let alone contemplating the much more permanent act of joining them in their domain.

The knights tried to maintain an unflappable demeanor, but it was obvious they were just as nervous as her. Many were praying that whatever was happening would spare them; many more were just waiting for when the snarling creatures charged.

As willing as one can be when under duress nearly spilled from her lips; sarcasm was a tempting outlet when trapped. Thankfully her mind mover faster than her tongue—at least in this instance—and her response was more measured.

“My life would be gone anyways with your prior course of action.” That and the lives of thousands, but it would not help to remind him of how many he would be forgoing the slaughter of; he seemed to revel the kill.

A title so grand as “betrothed” was surprising. Katya had expected “concubine” or “whore”. Perhaps “chattel”. What were his reasons for all this? Surely a warlord had no shortage of women he could threaten? But she was as likely to get an answer to that now as to “why kill the world?”.

The mere fact of whatever he had planned being beyond her comprehension was enough to justify fear, at least to any reasonable person. No one was entirely without fear of the unknown, let alone unknown surrounded by uncountable acts of slaughter. One could still glean the shape of an obscured thing by the ripples it produced.

But the thought that she could save her friends and fellows and neighbors and people from certain agony was enough to set her course. Fear was unavoidable, but it was the actions in spite of or because of it that held weight.

Plus, if it proved too unbearably unfathomable she would probably be able to find a means to end herself. A grim resolution to draw comfort from, and yet.

“I agree.”

Her steps did not falter—despite the leaden feel—even in the deeper patches of snow. She stopped only when next to him, not out of fear, but to turn and enfold his outstretched hand in one of hers. Soft and small.

“I am Katya Greenleaf. Let us be off then, dear Charôţh.” Cold fire shot through where the mark lay, tensing her jaw and sending ice water down her spine. But there was something more, some jolt of yearning connection that coiled around her spine like a climbing snake. Names held power, at least in some tales. Hopefully him knowing hers would now.

She could see his eyes now: an oddly human blue.

The girl—if permitted—would move to take him into that gaping unknown with her. If he truly considered then betrothed now, he should have little issue crossing the threshold with her.


In all honesty, the Shadow Prince expected the healer girl to balk at his terms, or at least attempt a bargain he would most surely reject. Instead she willingly surrendered, taking his hand as she readied herself for the unknown before her. Charôţh allowed himself a smile; she had impressed thus far, but the real challenge was about to begin.

“Very well, very good. I see that you are ready. But before we leave…”

With Katya’s hand still in his, he turned to the knights and “May the name of Katya Greenleaf be forever praised, and etched into legend. She has spared you all from certain destruction. I promise to treat her fairly and courteously on the other side, where the nest of shadows resides.” 

With that, the Shadow Prince took a long bow as his soldiers retreated from existence, and led Katya into the void portal as it swallowed them into another domain.

_____

They found themselves on a bridge made of what looked to be polished black marble, with faint red veins weaving through the sheen. Beyond the railings was a thick fog that shrouded a distant stretch of water on either side; the thick, maroon mass peering through the haze suggested that the moat consisted of blood. Groans of despair stretched rode along the gusts of wind that slid along their feet and past their ears. Looking above, the Shadow Prince’s castle resembled obsidian shards that stretched into, and perhaps past the heavens.

“Come, my dear,” Charôţh said as he beckoned Katya forward with a hand upon the small of her back. “It’s time to enjoy your new home.”

The entrance of the castle was a tall door made of a dark, oily oak, which parted slowly upon their approach. There was a sheet of shadow within its arch that concealed what lay within its gate, and for a moment they seemed to be entering another vessel of desolation.

The visual of the grand hall appeared suddenly. Upon a tall, circular staircase was the throne, made of marble with a back that arched outward like a crescent. Directly above the throne was the floating sculpture of an armored demoness, holding a pair of daggers in her hands and one clenched between her teeth, held in place with a magic that rejected a visual means of suspension. Her eyes blazed a red light that slid crimson contours across nearly every edge and bend, and her knees stretched into a lunging pose. Her broad, sprawling batwings cast sharp, angular shadows across the chair below her, swallowing it almost completely in darkness.

Flanking the wide, black rug of the hall were statues on ribbed pillars, some resembling beasts of lore and legend, and others that were simply horrifying. A circular void similar to what Katya experienced earlier was seen above one column… depicting a countless array of charred arms… reaching through with hopeless grasps at nothing but air, seeking a hold to pull them from their prison of nothingness. A closer inspection revealed the desperate hands periodically twisted and clenched. 

Indeed, these statues also seemed alive in their presumed stasis, as one ox-like beast with an axe snorted its welcome as the pair passed the glare of its searing, fiery eyes.

“I hope this isn’t… overwhelming for you, Katya,” Charôţh said, with the slightest tinge of apology in his voice. A look on his face, however, revealed the ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

“If you would follow me…” the Shadow Prince said while leading the way towards the left of the grand hall. Another door would greet them, similar but smaller to the grand hall’s entrance, and parting subserviently just the same. Inside was a long hallway with paintings on either side, exquisite portraits of what may have been predecessors of the Shadow Prince’s dominance. Some bore a striking resemblance, others appeared to be distant relatives. At the end of the hall was another door, more modest with its impact, and needing the twist of a brass knob to open.

“Where you will sleep, my dear.” Charôţh stood aside to allow Kayta’s glimpse into the bedroom. Despite a pair of busts of what could only be described as screaming souls, the room seemed almost shockingly tame compared to the sights thus far. The bed was wide and expectedly tucked with black sheets and blankets, enclosed by a tall canopy with dark, translucent drapes with intricate patterns. The oily-oak doors of what was almost certainly a wardrobe could be seen, as well as another that possibly offered a washroom. Oblong windows allowed a grayish light to shed through the room, creating a sort of simmering mist that almost cloaked the floor.

“You are free to come and go as you wish, but this castle you shall never leave without me,” Charôţh said with a sternness that almost constituted a warning. “And there’s something else…”

Leading them back out into the grand hall, the Shadow allowed the door to shut behind him before looking to his left, the area behind the throne that sat atop its coned staircase. There would be seen a series of archways with red curtains exhibiting a vertical series of mysterious glyphs, draped with swathes of shadow. He gestured towards them with his gaze affixed on Katya.

“The Temporal Gallery,” Charôţh explained. “Rooms that live, breath, and move as we do. Rooms above time, throughout plausibility. Even I am unaccustomed to their mysteries. You are forbidden to explore them on your own, as the absence of a spiritual anchor might damn you within their clutches forever. But perhaps in time, we can do so together.” He turned to his green-eyed guest and smiled.

“There’s more to see, dear Katya, but before that… are you hungry, my dear?” Charôţh clapped his hands with a soft emphasis as he looked towards the opposite end of the hall. “My dining room is cozy and intimate, and I promise the dishes from my chefs will appetize you, despite any misgivings you may have gathered thus far.”


The last thing Katya wanted was to have to look back, but Charôţh had forced it of her by turning. Her eyes squeezed shut. She couldn’t look at them, couldn’t look back at the home and all the friends she was leaving.

But she knew she’d regret if if she didn’t.

With one last look, she regarded her fellows: a mix of confusion, relief, and tinges of sorrow played across the canvas of their faces. All Katya could offer them were silent tears—tears she could and would not give to Charôţh—and a wan smile before they stepped into the dark. They would be able to go on; they would be preserved.

When the landscape reshaped in front of her, it was not to the expected void. The physician had no idea what to expect in this strange new realm—at least they still seemed to use structures, which was somewhat more typical than she had figured.

Though most structures didn’t have red veins pulsing through the brickwork, and generally could only be built so high before the walls had to be unfeasibly thick to support it.

The liquid below matched the color of his armor far too much for her liking, but it surely couldn’t be blood: that’d be far too impractical. As if impracticality held weight here, where the stone defied weight and gravity enough to pierce the firmament.

Her spine stiffened as his hand settled on it, nudging her forward. It made for an oddly serene image: in pose, he resembled a doting husband, one hand on hers and the other about her waist. The lingering wails rather ruined the whole thing, setting her teeth tense in her jaw. Those poor people. . .

The great hall was an impressive display of artistry and scale, though the choice of statues left much to be desired. Who waa the demon woman, so important as to be above the throne itself?

She startled at the movement of the ox. The goal of many architectural structures—beyond the basic security and shelter—was to awe and intimidate. But who could he be attempting that with here? Whoever it was, it seemed that goal had many more avenues available when magic so heavily saturated a realm. Her face twisted at his “concern”, more so the smug, sardonic bent to his lips. He was obviously enjoying her discomfort—by far among the least of the sufferings he seemed to enjoy.

“It is. . .rather much. But not beyond at least surface-level comprehension thus far. One may call the pervading torture a touch excessive.” Katya tried to keep her voice level, droll, but it hitched and wavered revealingly as her gaze fixed to the grasping portal. If the ox was alive in some capacity. . .

They thankfully moved on to the thankfully mundane bedroom before she could contemplate their agony too deeply.

The mists covering the floor seemed to move and coil playfully about her ankles; she shifted her legs to try and ward them off. The thought that her first ventures into true intimacy would be in this den of darkness, with this creature that killed the world. . . it dropped a leaden weight in the pit of her stomach.

Hopefully she could find something to cover the busts; the bed looked comfortable, at least. Were they alive too?

If she were free to roam the halls, perhaps she could find a ladder, sheets or rope as a tether, and curtain rod or comparable tool to try and help pull the pained souls from portal in the hall. To try such unaided would only result in her being pulled in, and though the attempt would not likely yield, she still had to try.

Not being permitted to leave was expected, frankly, and barely worth considering: he could and likely would destroy Cirrane if she reneged on her promise.

The next step of the tour hurt her eyes; looking too long at the runed archways invoked an aching pressure in the walls of her mind. It was more out of necessity than desire that she turned her gaze to him as he spoke, though the sight of him invoked its own set of concerns. How could this monster look this human? His eyes held a compelling spark in them.

The depths of the gallery certainly were intriguing, though dangerous if even the lord of this very domain could not navigate them entirely. Curious.

“I could afford to eat, yes.” More so the chance to think and process in a hopefully more mundane environment, but food would not go amiss—provided it was edible enough. Rationing had taken its toll on all of Cirrane, rendering all far more lean than the years prior.

“Besides, I imagine the rest of the tour will only prompt more questions, I already have so many I’d like to try an address beforehand.” It was then that his mention of chefs registered: if he had staff who could survive this realm, perhaps all the people taken here still persisted?


The dining room was scarcely larger than the bedroom, with a doorless entrance to the adjacent kitchen, where the clinks and clatters of dishes could be heard as unseen chefs kept busy with their culinary preparations.

“Let us then sit, eat, chat… and question,” the Shadow Prince said while extending his arm to the modestly-sized dining table. “I very rarely have opportunities to entertain dinner guests,” he remarked as he sat upon his chair and watched Katya do the same. “This is a bit of a treat for me… a welcome aside from my dedication of conquest.” 

There were goblets awaiting the pair at their seats, as well as dishes and silverware; all black with intricate red and gold embellishments. An ebony drape ran along the table, embroidered with alternating matte and lustrous stripes. 

On the walls were an array paintings, portraying a variety of still-lifes, landscapes, and oceanscapes with ships, each of course subdued with the range of their palettes, ordained with black frames.

A well-dressed waiter with gray, expressionless eyes approached with a wordless welcome and poured what appeared to be a chardonay wine for Katya. For Charôţh a thick, dark liquid was poured from an unmarked bottle. The Shadow Prince twirled his goblet pleasingly as a basket of biscuits was placed between then, their aroma mouthwatering and not without their own visual touch of darkness, being covered in poppy seeds.

A long sip of his drink preceded his next words to Katya. “You’re quite beautiful, you know,” he’s say with a sideways pull of his grin. “And delightfully virtuous. I can smell the innocence across every inch of your body.” Amazingly, a soft, inebriated blush had already risen to Charôţh’s cheeks. 

“It was my intention to partake of your body tonight,” he continued, the gleam in his eyes clearly enjoying his own forwardness. Charôţh’s demeanor has certainly relaxed while his eyes studied Katya’s reactions intently. 

“But alas, you’ve been through much today, have you not? Leaving your old world abruptly behind… I’d be remiss to explore your thighs with the weight of the day’s turbulence still heavy on your mind.” Another sip of his black wine swished around in his mouth. “Perhaps in the morning…” he’d add, almost absentmindedly. 

Behind Charôţh and around the room, Katya would surely notice the changes on the walls… the paintings which one presented innocuous imagery had changed… now depicting sexual entanglements that clearly involved she and Charôţh. One scene illustrated an overhead view of Katya pinned below the Shadow Prince with her legs wrapped around his waist… yet another was an unmistakable close-up of Katya’s bare breasts, her nipples perked and firm. All the while, the color of the Shadow Prince’s eyes had shifted from a blue to a warm purple that bordered on a cherry red. 

Without warning he lifted from his seat and reached for the side of Katya’s face, cupping it softly with fingertips that gently stroked the area of skin below her ear. Slowly his hand trailed to her jawline… then descended along the side of her neck with a brief pause of pressure that seemed interested in her pulse… then further still to the top of her chest with a final, gentle squeeze across the fullness of her breast.

“I do have certain tastes in lovemaking, my dear, some of which may be… challenging for you at first. But I promise that my patience will be…”

The waiter’s arrival interrupted Charôţh’s thought as he lay down bowls upon his and Katya’s salad plates.

“Ah! Soup!” Charôţh said excitedly. “I do believe our main dish is some sort of fowl,” he’d say to Katya with a low voice while leaning towards her, as if sharing a secret. A wink accompanied his playfulness, but still held an air of sultriness.

“Now then. You had some questions for me, yes, my dear?” Charôţh said while plopping back into his chair as he fumbled for his spoon on the table.


More out of habit than anything else, she unwrapped the cloth layered over her hair, letting the cornsilk braid fall back behind her. It was rude to have one’s head covered at the table, and though she did not often run in noble circles she was still raised as such. In a time that no longer seemed real.

“You do seem to take precious few breaks from conquest; it makes me wonder why you stopped on my account.” Bitterness snuck into her words, black as his wine.

The placement of the tableware prompted speculation: he had not arrived at Cirrane with the sole intent to take her. They were unlikely to have been set before he left: did he have some sort of direct magical link to or hold on the staff? She had seen him give no orders.

Katya gave the server a pleading look, desperate for some sign of humanity, and found none.

The dream-field of poppies flashed through her mind as she regarded the biscuits, quickly dissipating. There were concerns of indefinite entrapment upon eating food of this realm, but she was already damned. The girl took one and split it in half, savoring the buttery comfort.

With it, an opioid numbness washed over her fears: enough to hide the edges like a rising tide, but not submerge then entirely. Katya had worked with milk of the poppy before; she knew full well that poppyseeds in this state should not have this effect.

It was when she was first partaking of her drink that he stated his initial intent. The fruity taste felt far less refreshing down her windpipe. Her eyes fixed his with a watchful stare as he continued, yet more red tinting her cheeks. It was obvious he was seeking some shocked or repulsed reaction, as if she were some pearl-clutching dowager. She would try her best to ensure he did not receive it.

His humanity seemed so variable: she had met him a barely-fathomable revenant heralding the doom of the world, now he seemed merely a sickly rake, eating and drinking and taking drunken delight in his planned iniquity. A warm shiver ran through her: the sinful slant of his lips promised much.

“Indeed, it’d be a rather dour wedding night as it were. My gown will still be usable whenever. . .that occurs.” Katya motioned sarcastically at her conservative white medic’s robes: a wedding dress of sorts.

His words soon affirmed the promise of his lascivious smirk, and she could no longer ignore the shifting paintings.

They were terribly. . .distracting; a blush not induced by the alcohol painted her cheeks and lower still. The images were inevitable, perhaps it was best she try and grow accustomed to them. Her eyes lingered on some of the more lascivious scenes when he moved to her. Was he blushing as well? What had happened to his eyes? She had not thought him capable of possessing color, let alone—

He was soon on her, touching her with the reverence of a penitent promised absolution. After so many years of struggle and paranoia, the mere pretense of affectionate touch was enough to unleash the floodgates. Her head tilted into his palm, cheek warm and soft against his fingers. Heat grew in her chest; her pulse raced as if to greet his touch. It no longer felt quite as icy. An effect of his inebriation, perhaps?

A faint groan slipped from her as he clasped over the roughspun cloth covering her chest; everything felt too sensitized. The sound soon took a less pleased note it the interruption, whether out of relief or disappointment she could not quite tell.

The waiter placed their dishes without affect; the poor soul seemed bereft of higher thought, at least from what little she had seen of him. The heat within quickly cooled.

The soup appeared conventional enough: a light chicken soup. Presumably the stock came from the bones and lesser cuts of whatever fowl was to be their main course. Hopefully it would not prove foul.

Small spoonfuls were eaten as she pondered what avenue to take. She could not squander his likely limited willingness to indulge her. Few would have the patience to address every single lurking question swirling about her head.

“What happens to the people you take?”

Hopefully the questions of “why did you take them” and “what is this place” would have some sidelong light shed on them as he answered the first. If light could even find purchase in this realm.

She dipped the other half of the biscuit into her soup before nibbling at it: she figured she deserved at least some narcotic relief, and the flavor helped bolster the bread.


Charôţh savored a bite of his soup, swishing it within his mouth as he watched and listened. Katya appeared noticeably more relaxed before him, though there were contemptuous pulses that flared across her eyes. These too will pass, the Shadow Prince thought to himself before collecting his words.

“They are alive,” the Shadow Prince finally answered, in such a manner to address an underlying concern. “Though perhaps they themselves lack that realization. My shadow forces seek out companions as those do in the realms of light… as well as intimacy and sexual succor.” A toss of his goblet was swallowed with an audible gulp, and the flush on his face had pulled the complexion to a nearly human shade.

“They are now citizens in the realms of shadow, certainly for a long time… perhaps for the rest of their days. Their existence needn’t be fraught with turmoil and grief, if they are willing to submit to the desires of their abductors.”

“They are acting on the primal impulses that unite us all,” Charôţh continued. “Sexual climax is a touch upon the plane of euphoric bliss that weaves itself across all beings, both dark and light and in between. It lingers and looms on my own mind, even as my passion fully invests itself into my bid for conquest.” 

With his elbow on the table, Charôţh’s fingertips dangled his goblet by its rim with casual twirls. “To climax is to be one with Creation, for those fleeting, succulent seconds. It can be quite addictive, as you very well may know for yourself.” His smile flitted curiously.

A trio of waiters arrived with pleasant offerings of smells and sights. The fowl was unveiled as chicken, delivered on an oblong platter between the Prince and Katya, glazed with a thick blackberry sauce and garnished accordingly.  

Slices of chicken breast were carved and placed upon Charôţh’s and Katya’s plates by a waiter’s patient knife and fork. A lightly sauced vegetable medley was portioned by another attendant, and the pair’s drinks were promptly refilled.

“And perhaps that is where my… challenging tastes come into play,” Charôţh said, resuming where he left off. “I’d like for you to fight against that climax… deny yourself the satisfaction of its release. If my simple command isn’t enough of an anchor, then perhaps the looming shadows of punishment will provide the proper motivation.” 

“After all, as one who selflessly administers aid, your earthly desires should be set aside for those of others, yes?” The Shadow Prince’s hand reached once again towards Katya, seizing her breast with a firm clasp, kneading it for a number of seconds before a gentle tug of her nipple accompanied its departure. 

“Who knows… your disdain for me might carry your discipline far across our intimate entanglements. But passion can be quite infectious… let’s hope it leaves you in a state of perpetual want.” The grin on Charôţh’s face flared deviously.

“We shall see for ourselves tonight,” the Shadow Prince declared, straightening himself in his chair. “I see no point in a delay. The sooner you acclimate yourself to my desires, the better.”


She sighed with an emotion too weak to be relief, but incomparable to anything else. They were prisoners of war, taken by a conqueror for labor and exploitation. Not dissimilar from that period of roving warlords that lay far closer to the now than many would like to think, well within the realm of comprehensibility. The people persisted, even in whatever wretched state they had been trapped in.

Her eyes lingered on his hands as he spoke and twirled his goblet, the sinuous grace of his hands combined with the quiet intensity with which he spoke wove a compelling heat that settled upon her. The memory of his touch lingered all-too much, augmented by the lascivious paintings. He had a strange handsomeness, she decided: lean and pale.

“I suppose I’ll have to take your word on the matter of, ah, climaxes for now; as you’ve said, I’ve never, been with another. And my self-produced ‘climaxes’ have generally been rote and underwhelming.” Indeed, for her they had generally been little more than a machine-like session of joylessly pressing at herself to elicit stimulus; she had difficulty understanding how much weight folks often regarded the matter.

Something far more akin to relief than before flooded through her as the “fowl” he seemed to take such fiendish delight in foreshadowing was revealed to be a mere chicken. A delicious one, at that. It was something of a comfort that the beings here were still human enough to require food, at least enough to have the infrastructure for it. She ate vigorously: meat was amongst the scarcest food available during the years of rationing, one that was much-needed.

It certainly didn’t hurt that it was so well-prepared.

“If those climaxes are what all the fuss is about, I don’t believe I’ll have too much trouble resisting.” Her eyes gleamed sharp, mouth tilted smugly with the veiled challenge: “show me how good it can be”. Perhaps the inebriation was lending her too much courage.

As if in chastisement, his hand was upon her again, almost as warm as a human’s now. Light pinpricks danced at the back of her neck with his ministrations, even through the thick white cloth. Such promise seemed to linger in those touches, even the hint of pain at his pinch that drove an airy, startled sound from her throat. It was only a good deal after he released her that she gathered herself enough to respond.

“Generally, aiding others is my desire, but it’s been in such a way that’s more substantive than fleeting moments of extraneous pleasure and not at the cost of all of me.” Katya was still a person, after all. She deserved pieces of herself that were just hers.

His sudden rise and resolution was startling, but expected. It took only a moment’s hesitation for her to rise with him: it would be best to try and get this evening’s tribulations over with; perhaps then he’d leave her alone in the morning, and she’d be free to explore.

But despite her rationalizations, the girl would be lying to herself if she denied any curiosity, any desire.

“Very well, I suppose it only makes sense that the farce of this betrothal extends to the marriage bed. Let’s be done with it.” Less venom than she wanted had made it in her voice.


The smile that curled below Charôţh’s cheeks relished the subtle challenges that Katya presented. There would be a moment’s consideration before his decision was made. “Let’s see just how ready you are, my dear Katya.”

There was a sudden snap of the Shadow Prince’s fingers, and both he and Katya found themselves seated upon the black velvet blankets of his bed. The gray mist danced and flowed along its foundation, and traces of candlelight emanated a soft orange glow across the bedroom.

“My apologies for the hastiness, but your beauty makes it quite difficult for me to wait.” The grin never left Charôţh’s face as a series of hand gestures invoked a sightless presence around Katya… a swoop of his palm commanded an invisible force of arms to remove her surcoat and dress, discarded unceremoniously to the floor alongside her wimple. She was then directed to lay upon her back with a backwards pull of her shoulders, wearing nothing but her undergarments as the Shadow Prince dissolved his own fittings into nothingness with another snap.

“This I save for myself,” the Shadow Prince cooed as he freed Katya’s loins from their tantalizing barricade. A series of tugs slid up the softness of her legs, culminating with a careless toss of cloth. 

A fluid, cup-like motion of his hand then parted her thighs. From there, the unseen strength relinquished its hold as the Shadow Prince positioned the swollen tip of his rigid cock against the flowery folds between Katya’s thighs. His fevered gaze dangled downwards to his lover’s face, buttressed by his thin, muscular arms and shoulders.

“You are mine, Katya… now and forever.” With a motion of his waist, he slipped inside his betrothed.

The succulent sensation of warmth spilled across his body. There was a brief moment of effort to pierce Katya’s shield of purity, and then his cock was fully immersed… arching upwards and inwards, as it burrowed as deeply as its excitement would allow. 

“Oh… oh yes, Katya.” The thrusts were heavy and rhythmic, each with a second’s savor of ecstasy at the nethermost arc. The pleasure built quickly until a final, desperate buck of his hips swallowed every inch of his cock, accompanied by euphoric moans that the Shadow Prince seemed almost to fight against, muffling their intensity with pursed lips.

As he flooded Katya with his seed, Charôţh’s eyes pulsed between a fiery red and a vivid sky blue… refusing to close amidst the throes of ecstasy as they affixed upon Katya’s own forest-green orbs. His pants climbed from within his throat as sweat collected upon his brow, pattering against Katya’s forehead in bulbous droplets.

His cock eventually eased, shrinking back from its spasmic frenzy, until its head nestled within Katya’s opening with aftershocks of elated exhaustion. The eyes of the Shadow Prince cooled to a neutral cerulean, and his mind seemed to return from nirvana… some celestial place above the descriptions of language.

There we are,” he sighed throatily before maneuvering his spent body to Katya’s side. “You did well, my betrothed. Though you yourself shall never partake of such delights, know that I am quite satisfied.” The Shadow Prince then shifted to his side towards Katya, supporting the chin of his inquisitive face with a bent elbow’s palm. “For the moment, at least.”


Once again, the sense that… something… was conveniently absent from Kelyn’s response flagged Charles’ scrupulous instincts. He of course didn’t care to interrupt their momentum with an inquiry, as their rapport was growing by leaps and bounds with every exchange, but somehow understood that whatever her secret was, it would rear its head sooner or later. It might raise an eyebrow but he’d be sure to shrug it off… he was good at that sort of thing, and to each his own, as they say. He had his own crosses to bear, after all.


Her breath caught in her throat as they were whisked straight onto the bed; too little time was given to recover before being stripped and shoved onto her back. An attempt to cover her chest was made, but the force that had pulled her back kept her pinioned.

His own disrobing could not be seen, only surmised as his now-bare arms crept up her legs like a grasping spider—her head remained pinned as well. One that had taken her braies and left her shivering.

The pressure keeping her stiff had ceased now, at least. The first thing she did was cover her chest as best she could with her slender arms, the next was to look at him, a hunter poised for the kill.

There was an allure to the intensity with which he regarded her, the sheer closeness. The weighty finality of his words. It would only get him so far on its own, however. A squeak of fear slipped from her lips at the feel of his heat so close to her junction.

The girl yelped and squeezed her eyes shut when he sheathed himself within her, unyiedingly him.

Though the languid atmosphere of the dinner had relaxed her by the most minute amount, she had no preparation for this. His cock abraded through her, her passage hot as a crucble, tight and dry as a drumhead.

Perhaps the overwhelming sensation of being filled with another could have grown tolerable at least, given time and encouragement. Charôţh gave her neither. The man tore within her some part so deeply lodged she had not realized its pervasion, and the pain was commensurate.

He would not get her tears, she promised herself again. But god it hurt; he was splitting her in two, carving her from herself and replacing all she was with him. Even her breath was pushed out of her, each thrust forced a gasping exhale, each retreat a pained whimper.

Katya shoved her mind elsewhere then, it politely showed itself out of the room that was her skull. Now it was more like she was an impassive observer, watching a different woman be brutalized by a conqueror. The play of colors in his eyes was more akin to a novel sunset now.

It was only when he was done that she returned to herself, though her emotions felt muffled. Further away than her body, for now.

With disdain, she wiped his sweat from her brow, trying to force as much air back into her lungs as she could and trying not to retch. For a time, words escaped her and her thoughts, only being drawn back into sharp, targeted focus as he slipped from her and spoke. His words gave her mind enough to work with to snap back:

“Well, the supposed delights weren’t exactly difficult to resist; 2 minutes of pained squelching noises between my thighs is hardly the most compelling siren.”

Shaking anger laced through her voice, barely-suppressed. He had robbed her of her first intimacy, turned what was supposed to be a pleasurable, sweet exploration of sensation and body into a careless, selfish exercise. More the fool she for expecting anything selfless of a warlord; pontificating about pleasure was far easier than delivering it, after all.

“Perhaps I could find a book to read for next time, if this is to be a regular infliction. Do something intricate with my hair, maybe.”

The bitterness continued into her sigh as she sat up and moved to undo her braid, hair streaming like spun gold over her shoulders. Her core ached as she bent to pick up her discarded clothes, tossing them at the busts she could have sworn were leering at them. The wet trickle of his seed sent a realization through her, one that came with a deathly weight.

“We need silphium root.” The physician stated with a notable lack of affecf, gaze aimed at anywhere but Charôţh. A new fear arose, a new cost that she may have to pay making itself known with the cloying heat now sliding out of her.

Would he force her to carry a child as well?


The exhilarating flood of release had already slipped its hold from Charôţh’s mind and loins, and the realization began to settle that Katya had not quite enjoyed her own experience. The coping sound of distance had already laid its claim upon his lover’s voice, and the ghost of a frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. A long moment passed between them, solemn and dispassionate.

“We need silphium root,” Charôţh repeated, seemingly speaking to something other than Katya. Within a few moments, there was a single, loud knock at the door. “Come,” the Shadow Prince called, prompting a small, black-robed servant to enter and scurry to the healer’s side of the bed. Upon closer inspection, the servant was only a robe, with a hood draped around an invisible head and unseen hands offering a plate before Katya’s presence.

Silphium root at your request, m’lady,” said a prickly, nasally voice. A brief presentation of the plate’s contents preceded the next point. “Also the stem of the sky flower, which will nullify your potential pregnancy, should you decide to consume it.” The offerings were left on the nightstand, and the servant dismissed himself without another word.

In the meantime, the Shadow Prince had sat up on the edge of the bed, busying himself with his own whims. A tucked-away violin’s case floated across the bedroom and into his hands by mental command, and before long the instrument was tucked under his chin alongside a bow in his hand. Music began to play, frenetic and choppy at first before leveling into crisp, poignant waves. After a time, the musical piece culminated into a shuddery, deeply somber crescendo, after which Charôţh withdrew the violin from his chin, breathing heavily as if the effort had drained him.

Silence descended like an curtain upon the bedroom once more, and the Shadow Prince’s eyes turned to Katya, now the color of a faded, overcast blue.

“I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to enjoy your first act of physical love,” Charôţh stated with a genuine sense of regret in his voice. “Luckily, this will be far from your only act.” A smile sifted to his face, one that seemed to offer encouragement as opposed to grim realization.

Still sitting opposite his lover on the bed, Charôţh’s hand caressed a pocket of empty air before him. Katya would feel his disembodied touch across her cheek, tender and reassuring. Love’s intoxicating release seemed to touch its influence upon even the darkest of beings.

“I allowed my lust to overrule any conscientious considerations, at the cost of your own suffering.” There was a surprising note of apology in his words, but also a noticeable reluctance to verbalize it.

“If it’s of any consolation to you, my first act of intimacy was fairly joyless as well. I was forced as a young age to copulate with a contemptible witch, and her embrace was cold and listless. It was quite the relief, once the exchange was over.” The Shadow Prince sighed, but there was little regret expressed in his breath. “Such are the ceremonious coming-of-age rituals for beings of the Dark. We are taught to disassociate sexual release with attraction, but the curvaceous offerings of mankind have only grown more… tantalizing with the passing of generations.”  

Charôţh leaned the violin case against a nightstand before shifting to lay on the bed, hands tucked behind his head while staring upwards. He often found a silent comfort in trailing his eyes along the ornate carvings which splayed and spiraled across the ceiling, showing themselves through the translucent fabric of the bed’s canopy.

“At any rate, what’s done is done. I would caution against training yourself to resent the act of lovemaking, since our entanglements will be common occurrences. I can only hope that our… your experiences improve, with time and patience.” A certain coldness has once again taken residence in Charôţh’s voice, and he quietly welcomed its return. In the end, he thought, Katya’s pleasure is a mere supplement to my own, secondary and unnecessary. Such is her weight to bare.


Katya pulled the sheets to cover herself at the knock, the black fabric cool and soft across her bare skin. The servant’s lack of hnads was noticed as soon as he entered, the lack of anything else when it approached.

“Ah, thank you.” Still, it wouldn’t be polite not to thank the thing, even if might only a manifestation.

The girl ate the bitter herbs, the taste in her mouth now matching the roiling in her stomach. At least she was offered a choice in this.

The music was unexpected; more so the fact that such a creature could produce anything of beauty. The symphony held groef, boundless enough to nearly bring her to tears in the reverie. A shuddering breath escaped her as the sorrowful threnody finished, as if she could breathe out all the melancholy that plagued them. It lingered enough to quaver her voice, even in the wake of his remorseless non-apology.

“Yes, you did. And it is ineeed of little consolation; it means you might know something of how wretched it can be and still chose to inflict it on me.” And likely countless others. Hurt leaked into her voice, creeping as if there was actually any affection for him to have betrayed.

Their wedding night would set the pattern, she realized. If she could not coax him to consider her now, the odds of doing so would decrease each rote, joyless day.

“If all the experiences are to be like that, I see little natural reaction but to resent them. Why mark me at all if you treat your betrothed like a paid harlot?” His caress mocked her further; the facade of tenderness only seemed to mantle him when it did not ask anything remotely taxing.

No, her own lack of experience had not moved him; a different tack was needed, even if risky. Katya turned to look at him now, eyes gleaming emeralds, lit with cold fire.

“I suppose I should have expected your skills to be lacking. A warlord used only to taking from the unwilling could hardly be expected to have developed any capacity for delivering pleasure to another.” Her voice turned imperious, filled with a power and confidence she did not currently possess. Perhaps he’d actually respond to her less subtle challenge, given his disregard for the less overt one, his ignoring of the petty snipes. Sympathy wpuld obviously not move him, perhaps the desire for dominance would.

“I don’t think you even could bring me to these supposed peaks you have no problem expounding about.” A smug slant marked her smile.


It swiftly dawned on Charôţh that he had previously not spoken of his sexual breaking to any creature, light or dark or of mankind. No effort was made to keep it hidden, but there was never any occasion to share it, even with the wenches and slaves enjoyed in his past. He had confessed it to Katya without hesitation, and his revelation left him equally relieved and perturbed. 

Involving himself in the realms of intimacy and vulnerability has conjured strange reflections. Were these wise endeavors, befitting of the Shadow Prince? There was a lack of concern that was alarming in itself, and perhaps even this fell short of the true crisis before him. He had ravished and ravaged the woman promised to him by prophesy… and his mind incredulously felt the stony weight of regret. Was his impervious soul slowly being weathered? Could Katya somehow sense this weakness, and sought to press the only advantage she had?

Charôţh rebuked these potentialities, but admitted his admiration. Through her resentment Katya meant to challenge him, all the while refusing the river of hopelessness that would have drowned any other woman. 

The look on the Shadow Prince’s face shifted from incredulity to a sort of buoyant acceptance. Only the Fates were privy to the nature of their love and how it would blossom, but Charôţh moved to enforce this love, whether it be rooted in fear or affection, or some unspeakable combination. 

“My dear Katya,” Charôţh said in response, after a curious narrowing of his eyes. “I’ll offer you an even greater advantage. Your sweet slit shall forever be free from my cock’s intrusion, lest I succeed to pleasure you to ecstasy another way.”

The Shadow Prince lifted to his knees and crawled along the bed towards the maiden of light, situating himself before her pair of pale legs as his mauve gaze devoured her bare body. He then leaned forward and lowered his lips, pulling close to her wet cleft as his hands parted her knees.

“Hear me well, maiden Katya, for I am nothing if not a creature of my word. Reject the climb of release, and my cock shall nary again slip its way between your thighs. Even if your body should surrender its resistance, perhaps you’ll hide it well, and I’ll be none the wiser.”

With that, Katya felt a spongy wetness against her clit.

Charôţh was not quite a connoisseur of the nub that hid itself within a woman’s core, but perhaps it didn’t matter. As harshly as his cock had thrust, his tongue was conversely tender. Flutters and flicks ran up and down along Katya’s folds. Her clit was gently sucked and tugged with puckered lips, contrasted by hot, deliberate gusts of breath. A rhythm was established and rarely wavered, one which indulged in time and methodical exploration.

All the while, the mind of the Shadow Prince had already settled. The world was his to claim, as well at Katya of the Light.


Kelyn waited quite patiently at the back door, smiling softly to herself. Calling was a smart idea. Resourceful. She considered the little patio, a small pot garden ripe with tomatoes, onions, spinach, and a dozen different herbs. It was impressive what the woman had managed in such a small space and she obviously had a green thumb. If Kelyn walked to close to any of the plants, they would wilt and die out of sheer spite.


The Grand Overseer

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


Zoya braces herself against the earth to either search or hold onto her waning sanity. The grass is slick with dew, or bile, or tears alike; She cannot tell. Frigid fingers curl into the soil where Ingrid’s body disintegrated. She had been there — and then gone — and in her place remained only the stomach curdling reminder of her lifeless form folding in on itself. Where once beautiful features had both intimidated and ridiculed Zoya, sinking cheeks and hollowed eyes broke down and down and down, caving in and folding over pallid skin upon skin until not even the long tendrils of her pale hair or shell-belly opalescent nails remained. She had rot and rooted to the blood stained earth. She had been there, crooning to the moon, and then gone…

In her wake, the survivor’s fear is lucid now; all metallic and coppery on her bitten tongue as Zoya’s teeth grind to the set of her jaw. She chews her terror like fat on a tendon, gnashing at the sinew to severe it free from her thinning sanity. But the relief does not come, the chasm of her mind just pulls and splits wider. Sobs rack her form as her hands desperately comb the grass, understanding inch by inch the terrible reality laid bare before her.

“Please, please,” she urges to anyone — anything — that would hear her. Instead, her fingertips graze the book. The damning beginning of any of this. Spider walking her touch up along the spine, she can’t understand yet what it is that brings her to caress the cover. The leather is worn and almost pulses, breathes, preening to her attention as she traces the bizarre symbols etched along its spine. A serpentine twist of a chill slides upward along her vertebrae, tugging her taunt and alert so that she gathers it against her chest and perches up on her haunches.

The garden around her holds its breath. As a small girl, there were many times her aunt Viveka dissuaded her from playing in the wrought iron gated backyard. It had been one of the few peculiar limits the woman imposed on her niece, who often came to the antique Victorian house in an attempt to escape the shackles of such things. Naturally, Zoya would press the boundaries all around her. She would come to recognize hemlock, belladonna, foxglove, wolfsbane, and understand then why she had no business frolicking and touching their buddings.

But it was her childhood friend, Ingrid who had been the most curious, and dangerously so. When Zoya was taunted into sneaking out with the curious book found in the house’s decrepit basement just a week prior, it was with utter skepticism that she relented. She only wanted to shut Ingrid up. She never imagined—

“Hello?” Her voice trembled through the stillness encasing her as she rose from her skinned knees. Scuff-toed boots gingerly lead her forward a step, and then another, the book still clenched tightly in her hold. “Who is it?”

Something had changed the most integral part of herself and somehow, Zoya knew it was not the sudden death and bizarre disappearance of her friend’s body, nor was it the absurd series of events that led to this very pivotal moment. She remembered so vaguely, like peering through a fogged window, the twisting body of Ingrid as she danced and sang praises to the black sky. One hand twisted above her head, the book cradled in her other arm and nestled against her bare breast, and Zoya just looked on, laughing and drunk on the moment.

But something had been left behind in Ingrid’s absence. Something imposed upon this new reality. It was ominous and near, all around her, as familiar as the terror churning up her insides.

“Who’s there?!” She repeated louder this time, gathering her bearings. Her senses sharpened themselves against the face of panic and she wielded it like a weapon, daggering her focus to the blackness beyond the raised flower beds. They quivered too, swaying to a breeze Zoya could not feel.


It wasn’t the first time Kelyn had worked with the FBI in general and Deputy Chief Anderson in particular, but she was ready to jump of this Solstice case. She’d gotten the case files almost three days ago but had only accepted yesterday. It was compelling and ‘right up her alley’. The Chief’s words, not hers.

Kelyn strode in behind Anderson, instantly taking in the office, the Polaroids, the laptop and the man behind them. She stood strong and sure, dressed in a smart pair of slacks and a sharp burgundy long sleeved top. She was short, maybe five foot five and couldn’t have been older than twenty five, a pretty young face, skin the color of light caramel and red hair cut short in the back and long in the front so it framed her face. She was slender and elegant, lithe like a fencer and smiled warmly with pretty lips touched with a light rose lipstick.

She looked like a pushover and a bit of an airhead.

Until you got to her eyes.

A sharp and fierce intelligence stared back through pools of liquid sapphire. It was obvious that she assessed things in an instance and acted without hesitation. And there was something… else.

Something undefinable. Not any sort of feminine wile, not any kind of expression or mannerism.

Just something… different.

Whoever she was, she didn’t fit into the typical box someone of her appearance would confine themselves to.

Kelyn sat on one of the wooden chairs, crossing her long legs. She wore sneakers – clean, but well broken in. They rather contrasted with the sharp business wear. No jewelry either.

And wasn’t it hot out for long sleeves?

“Good afternoon, Detective. I look forward to utilizing our unique skill sets in a mutually beneficial manner.

She sounded just like a grown-up. Who would of thought?


First there was light…

…and then there was mind.

A pair of ethereal eyes blinked themselves alive, and measured breaths seemed at first to doubt their own existence. A relentless hum vibrated its intoxicating resonance upon saturated eardrums. It was a sound beyond space and time, above life and death.  

All around was the seeping, swimming black. Less than nothing, yet more than everything there is, or ever was. 

Spatial awareness was the first to impose its natural laws upon the fledgling consciousness, followed closely by sensation. Goosebumps lifted like textured leather on virgin skin, and hairs stood on end like a centipede’s legs.

The first words were pulled from a dry, raspy throat and resembled the sound of a crackling fire.

“Where am I?”

You are here, said a voice within the endless void. Soon you will be whisked away.

“What do you mean?” 

You have been summoned.

“By whom?”

Not by whom. By circumstance.

“I still don’t understand…”

There is nothing to understand. Your existence is purely reflexive. A bi-product of the book.

“The book? What book?”

There was an impatient silence. Then, what could have been the sound of snapping fingers sent a flood of grotesque sensation into motion. Comprehension and all its momentous implications descended like a deadly, determined eagle. Self-examination and critical thought…

A mental image of a golden spindle pulsed itself through the fog, and the metaphor was excruciatingly obvious. Threads of lives, endless and circular, bridged briefly by the frivolous misunderstanding of death. 

There is no death, the Grand Overseer forcefully declared to the entire universe. 

Very good, was the response from the void. There was no encouragement in its tone, only placid acceptance.

The blackness around the Grand Overseer suddenly began to jerk forward, propelling him with horrifying speed towards a distant, barely discernible point of light in the vast distance… 

***

Zoya would see a sturdy-looking man around six feet tall seemingly yanked before her, as if the air had coughed him to existence. He was wrapped in a rippling black robe that defied the gravity around him, floating a few feet above the damp earth. Piercing green eyes wavered through subtleties of shade, and a soft ochre complexion . The bridge of his nose forked towards sharp eyebrow blades, and wavy black hair seemed to mimic the robe’s carefree defiance.

And all around him… the black aura

The Grand Overseer would experience an intense, primal, sexual urge that rose and fell like a wave upon the sight of a woman. Then, as the ageless continued to acclimate itself through its flesh housing, it narrowed its eyes and parted its lips. There was a delay before it spoke, and then the words arrived. A chorus of five simultaneous voices, or five hundred.

“Zoya. Your fear and sadness is unwarranted. We are now eternally tethered.”

The arms of the Grand Overseer parted wide, and a sort of translucent illustration manifested between them. Zoya would see threads upon golden threads, with a forever’s worth of knots tied upon them, swirling with circular motions, stacking into glittering cylinders with indiscriminate choice…

The pair of emerald eyes studied Zoya with silent intensity. Snapping fingers eventually puffed the mystifying vision away, and the being spoke again.

“Your division from Ingrid offers mutual benefits. Her essence carries immutably forward. Your paths will cross again, in another—”

There was a sudden burst of light before the living apparition collapsed awkwardly onto the ground with a loud thump. The watery black robe seemed to dissolve completely away, leaving the emerald-eyed… man?.. naked in a heap. A few moments passed as the world held its breath, and then…

“Clothes… please,” came the plea of a now shockingly human voice.


Zoya’s senses had been sharpened, honed wholly by fear. The violence of the breeze quickened and whipped through the branches of the weeping pines, stirring up the stench of the earth’s rot and decay. The wintry air was bitter cold, cutting like glass across the planes of her freckled cheeks, unrelenting as it tore at her form. She was scarcely a tendril of mortality, beaten against the element while the manifestation of something indiscernible takes shape and form and light ahead.

And those senses which kept her footing here in this reality suddenly dulled. A tranquil sort of peace overcame her, like being plunged underwater and floating aimlessly in its depths. Her eyes followed the trail of a hundred—no, a thousand—golden threads that coiled and knotted and spun about one another, conjuring a tangle of paling light. Her mind could not comprehend the sight; the human velleity to reject which it could not understand rearing forth what would come to be temporary amnesia.

Suddenly a snap cracked like lightning across the forefront of her skull, momentarily blinding her, (somehow, she couldn’t understand. It was late. It was dark. How can there be light?) Her very soul felt to have dropped back into her body, heaving her from etterath and thrusting her back to reality.

A reality she couldn’t understand, still.

She swept the ground around her with a leering gaze that flickered about the garden. The mention of Ingrid was a whisper scraping against her ears, like the detached humming of a voice that came from within as much as it came from around her. Instead of finding the friend she could only faintly recall having been there—and now gone—her searching paused on the crumbled figure some paces away.

“Clothes?” She echoed, stupidly. Yes, she had hands, and they blanched knuckles around the spine of a forgotten book in her clutches. Abandoned if only for a moment, the tome was discarded upon the ground as she retrieved a scratchy afghan the girls had been using for the ritual’s materials. Zoya’s body moved on its own accord, as if she peered through a thinly veiled barrier that kept her from questioning what it was she was doing. She only knew urgency, to move and become useful and no longer prone with terror.

Approaching the figure with all the caution reserved for a feral animal, she knelt down on shaking legs while her mind raced to catch up with her body. A thousand questions fought to crawl up her throat, muffled by her labored breaths. The memory of something wrong shifted through her consciousness as she tried to will the recollection forth. Why was she here? She knew not to venture into aunt Viveka’s garden…

Draping the crocheted blanket across the man’s bare back, she was attentive to not touch him, though something provoked her to trail the notches of his spine. Her frozen fingers accidentally grazed the nape of his neck, churning up a splintered vision of blackness made unbearable light. A thousand voices rang through her mind, all words impossible to understand, apart from one singular fragmented sentence.

We are now eternally tethered.

She yanked her hands back and fisted them against the muddied thighs of her jeans, as if touching him had been as physically painful burden. With this strange encounter came a jolt of sudden awareness, making her blink against the darkness and sweep her focus around the garden.

“Where did you—” Eyes narrowed. She thought to reach out and touch the place in the air where she watched him birth into existence, but that was impossible. This all was impossible. Instead, she sneered and spat, “What the fuck is going on?”


There was a moment of silence as the file lay like a brick between them. Charles would eventually reach f

The loneliness crept in slowly at first, like a trickling creek. Then the feeling of gravity, that incessant pull of natural law, would further lend credence to the existence of many absurdly funneled to one, the familiarity of everywhere harshly narrowed to here. His gasps would catch against phlegm in his throat, and there was the briefest panic that something was obstructing his breathing. The hellish feeling would subside almost immediately, and a wash of calm bestowed itself across his body, perhaps a bodily mechanism ironing out the trembles and quakes of disorientation.

He climbed slowly to his feet, nude with a bit of mud across his thigh and chest. He would speak again, his voice steady and purposed, as if relaying some innate knowledge that sought to free itself from his mouth.  

“Zoya, your pull from the Great Source occurred seventeen hundred and twenty-two years ago.

Your first life was as Ada Saban, garment maker, born 317 after Christ’s death. Died 351 after Christ’s death.

Your second life was as Agmundr Niesche, sailor of the Tabash vessel. Born 401 after Christ’s death. Died 441 after Christ’s death.

Your third life was unnamed. A crib death after three days. Born 551 after Christ’s death.

Your fourth life was as Shang Liu Guo, attendant to the great Prince Meng Chai Mio. born 816 after Christ’s death. Died 871 after Christ’s death.

Your fifth life—”

Another sudden collapse would knock the wind from the stranger’s lungs with an unfortunate blow of his knee against his own chest. Desperate gulps pulled in breaths like a landlocked fish until calm arrived again. Then, for a series of moments, an otherworldly language spilled from his lips, sounding something like a series of whistling flutes with thick, punctuated trebles possibly indicating breaks between words. 

The strange speech would wane into nothingness as the man climbed onto all-fours, gathering his strength and mind once more. Finally, he found himself back on his heels, full of an aching loneliness alongside an utter feeling of isolation, which then gave way to…

…embarrassment.

Looking down upon his genitalia with a sudden flood of grotesque, wide-eyed realization, the stranger would turn beet red and rush himself behind a nearby fence post. His stern gaze reinforced his earlier request while he shielded his lower half as best as he could.

“CLOTHES, Zoya! Damn you! Then I’ll tell you anything you wish to know!”


The Shadow Prince

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


The clouds above Cirrane village coalesced into a floating blanket that rejected the sun’s light above, casting shadows like massive ink blots onto the pebbled road beneath it. A young girl in a flower dress pulled the gaze of her father towards the strange rain cloud with a point of her finger…

…but what Cirrane would receive was far beyond rain.

Before long, the shadow soldiers surged towards the bustling outdoor market like gray mists with vaguely humanoid shapes. They were as nondescript as shadows upon the corner of one’s eye, but appeared as transparent soldiers when still enough to take prisoners or direct orders… soldiers with molten eyes and uniforms of leathered skin.

The strolling father in his miner’s cap and overalls was pushed to the ground with blades pressed against his neck, while his screaming daughter fled until she was swept up by a horseback soldier’s arm and restrained against a mane of ebbing tendrils.  

A cacophony of chaos rose along with the screams of those woefully unprepared. Doors of buildings were slammed shut only to be torn off with a hurricane’s fury and ransacked by blurred, bestial beings. Women were taken and occasionally swallowed into the air, their screams abruptly cut from existence. Men fought with whatever they could manage as weapons, be it a broom handle or loose brick, only to be struck down or lassoed and dragged away by galloping horses.

Amidst the horror and pandemonium, a hazy presence slowly materialized itself into a corporeal form, like a swimmer surfacing from the depths. The sight of a tall, slender  man with leather armor the color of dried blood unveiled itself near the community building to stunned onlookers. His skin was as pale as snow, while his dark wavy hair flowed to a wind not of this earthly plane. Stark red markings and embellishments scattered themselves across the his armor, mostly strange glyphs that kept their truths away from unknowing eyes. He stood with arms that were calmly folded behind his back.

Though the name escaped comprehension, the onlookers ultimately understood. This is the Shadow Prince.

Yet another village claimed, was the look on his eyes while he reveled in quiet triumph. And many more still to fall. 

“Enough!” The cry was enough to shake the Prince from his reflections, and his focus settled upon a young, armored knight before him, emboldened by the weapon in his hands.

The young warrior held forth his blade to the Prince’s chest. “Stop this!” he insisted with a seething defiance that masked his dread. A merchant’s cart with caged chickens had toppled nearby, and their screeches perfectly captured the terror coursing through the air.

The Shadow Prince smiled at the boy’s request. “No,” he whispered back.

The warrior gritted his teeth in anger before his blade was swung. The Shadow Prince stepped calmly to the side and neatly dodged the attack. For a minute or so there was a ballet of desperation as the young warrior’s frantic swings failed to land a blow upon his graceful opponent, who hopelessly seemed one step ahead.

Finally though, with what seemed like a stroke of luck from the God’s themselves, the tip of the blade haphazardly pierced the chest of the Shadow Prince, and his snarl of pain accompanied a backwards tumble onto the ground.

He was but a moment away from lifting to his feet and ending the pathetic charade when a healer girl inexplicably rushed to his side A brief nudge of agitated dismissal would give way to the sight of eyes as they laid upon the woman… and the particles of air swirling around him seemed to freeze into place. There was some sort of subconscious, wordless realization… until a string of them finally sifted to the lips of the entranced Prince. 

“You are… who are you?”

The one? his mind questioned with the awe of a fledgling stargazer. She was attractive beyond the incommodious pulses of lust that the Shadow Prince grudgingly indulged upon to satisfy his meager ties to mortality. Her beauty spoke to something eternal, something that lifted above time itself and entwined with his essence… in this life, or the one that followed.

A few moments passed as the young woman dutifully tended to his wound. The Shadow Prince wouldn’t resist and remained still. Once it seemed the woman was finished, the Prince seized her forearm with one hand and drew a glyph upon it with the other… slowly and precisely, spreading a wave of gooseflesh. The mark’s imprint resembled a pair of entwined snakes upon a bed of waves, ghosting away after a few moments.

He then climbed to his feet, his gaze ever locked upon the healer girl. 

“Dear maiden, my name is Charôţh. I am honored and humbled by your presence.” A polite bow of greeting preceded his next words. “I have decided that your village shall be spared from my onslaught. In exchange, our lives are now bound together by the mark of Ætranos.” He could see the confusion in her eyes, but left it alone.

A snap of the Prince’s fingers instantly evaporated the pillaging forces, and the sudden silence that followed swallowed the village with finality.

“Until we meet again,” he said with a smile to the woman, still on her knees. Another snap of his fingers, and he disappeared before her very eyes.

___

Years passed. Kingdoms fell, as well as villages. The conquest of the Shadow Prince had neared its ultimate goal of dominance, and yet he sat wearily upon his throne as his trusted second approached with a climb up the circular staircase.

“My liege,” came the report of General Onyx. “More news to report. Rebellions gathering momentum and spreading outward.” He took a moment to reflect on the magnitude of the matter. “Their… alchemies have improved, it seems.”

“Yet I remain on the cusp,” Charôţh sighed through his breath. “If only the world accepted the inevitable, this would already be done with.”

“My scouts have returned with more details,” Onyx continued. “The village of Cirrane appears to have fortified into a stronghold.”

Charôţh’s eyes widened before narrowing into snake-like slits. “Cirrane,” the Shadow Prince hissed as he shifted on his seat.

“You’re familiar, my liege?”

The Shadow Prince shut his eyes and nodded. “I am familiar, and I seek to be unfamiliar,” he sneered while lifting to his feet. “We shall go to complete what I had left unfinished.”

___

The villagers of Cirrane were much better prepared when the ominous clouds gathered once more over their heads, but the fear on their faces was unmistakable. A large troop of knights assembled to await the looming threat, assembled in rows with blades drawn, while women and children fled or hid as best they could.  

Eventually, a swirling portal as black as the void pooled before the knights, rousing a chorus of gasps and shouts. The Shadow Prince emerged through the dark doorway, flanked by hordes of his hellborn soldiers.

Before he could lift a deadly finger towards the row of armored rebels before him, he was interrupted by someone pushing to the front and ahead of the knight’s positions. The Shadow Prince was visibly taken aback when he realized it was the healer girl, but rigidly stood his ground.

“And what have you say before the heat of battle, dear maiden?” Charôţh asked after a fleeting pause, unable to guise his curiosity.


Katya Greenleaf had been in the town center the day of the attack, in what she would later learn was among the first wave of the endtimes.

At first, she thought it a mere storm, her pace hurrying to get back to her cottage. Then the charging beasts descended to prove her otherwise. She ran, at least initially, before managing to subsume herself in the cold, calculating mindset of the wartime clinician. Triage. Treat who you could as best you could with what you had. Unfortunately there were few wounded, only the dead and the taken. Still, she tried, flitting as stealthily as she could across the town.

One man, the only identifiable one akongst the assailants, soon appeared, quickly ending up engaged with one of the few standing knights that remained in the villags—practically a boy. She could not help but watch, frozen in fear behind a set of crates.

Her consciousness slid over the blur of runes, mind unable to latch on enough to parse even one. Even the color of his eyes seemed an indiscernable mass. The girl broke from her paralysis once the scuffle finished.

The young knight scurried away as soon as he had an opening. Wise. Katya looked to the wounded man, breathing sharp as she fought with herself. He was obviously a prominent figure in conducting this slaughter; perhaps his death would prevent others. Her hands twitched.

Life needed to be preserved, regardless of ideology, intent, actions, regardless of anything.

“I’m Katya, lay still now, we’re going to get you fixed up, okay?” She tried to keep her voice comforting; human connection was often the only thing that kept the severely wounded clinging to life long enough for trearment.

Katya moved to kneel at him, beginning to suture. It seemed rather unecessary after a mere three stitches however, his flesh knit together to leave the man unscathed.

Before she could stand and draw back, he had grabbed her, his grip cold and firm as steel. A cthonic chill followed in the wake of his finger, the procedure allowing him plenty of time to regard her features.

She had a soft face and sharp jaw, doll-like lips lying under a button nose. A milkmaid braid as gold as sunshine crowned her head, pinned tight, and large forest green eyes stared fearfully back at him. Finally, she was released.

After an oddly genteel introduction, he vanished, taking the sieging horde with him.

There could be no knowing his motivations and intent for her, what the mark meant, only blind speculation. And there was little time for that in the aftermath.

Nightmares hounded her since, and though that was the case for most all the townsfolk, hers often took a less typical shape. Between the normal images of the sick and wounded and dying and dark were odd vignettes: plummeting through endless mists. A field of poppies, scarlet as loathing. Blood, so much blood, pooling into a grasping dark.

The years following hardened the village. Their once self-imposed insularity reached new heights as their trading partners were swallowed from the map—seemingly literally in some cases. Cirrane had become a bastion against the encroaching dark.

Thankfully their initial, watered down isolation helped the needed transition to complete independence. Few changes were needed for complete self-reliance, more for the increased defenss focus: the peace would not last forever, they knew. There was speculation as to what happened to the taken, but most viewed it as a worse death, being dragged to a wretched afterlife.

The people seemed to either galvanize in their resistance, or succumb to despair as scant few refugees reported the elimination of an ever-increasing amount of kingdoms. Too many people came to her for poison. Perhaps she shouldn’t have refused them—they may very well try more painful methods—but she found that removing access to an easier method helped curb some of the casualties. Too few.

It seemed the world was ending. She herself would rather try and cling to every moment of existence she could. Hence why she had not discussed her marking; it was unlikely anyone would accept any association with the perpetrator of the apocalypse.

It was a winter night when they next struck. Once-green fields lay covered in a snowy shroud, leaving the landscape a featureless canvas as far as the eye could see. A full moon hung low in the sky, mantling the scene in a pallid silver light.

Katya had joined the soldiers for the upcoming battle, nervously triple-checking her supplies in the back. In the best case scenario, there’d be wounded. In the worst, they’d all be gone.

But the sight of the crimson-mantled man emerging from the portal sent a primal jolt through her, something not entirely fear. Perhaps. . .perhaps the slaughter could be avoided?

Decked in the white robes of a battlefield nurse, Katya resembled an ethereal wraith flitting to the front, at least in color and cut. Her braid—now only shoulder length—peeked loose at her neck from under the wimple; a plague of scarlet fever years ago had forced many a haircut, herself included. It was only logical that as one of the few treating the afflicted, she end up as such.

With an iron that belied her fear, she spoke when up front, soft and firm. There was much she wished to say, to ask, but lives were at stake.

“Years ago, you promised we’d be spared in exchange for you marking me.”—the girl extended that same arm, sleeves drawn—”Would you break that vow?”

It was a gambit that was unlikely to succeed: though he had indicated a regard for etiquette—at least on a surface level—she knew precious little about his regard for oaths. Not all supernatural creatures were bound by them; another tack would be needed.

“If I were to willingly join you, would you spare them again?” A waver could be detected now, the words joined by wisps of chilled breath.

The weight of the dagger in her boot seemed to grow as if in reminder. He had bound their lived together, supposedly. If the need for leverage arose, perhaps her life would hold weight enough to save the village, if threatened.

Life needed to be preserved, after all, and the cost of one could very well save many here.


The confrontation of the healer girl brought forth a sort of embarrassed grimace to the face of the Shadow Prince. Her nurse’s attire meant nothing to his forces—they were vicious enough to ignore the battlefield etiquette towards disregarding medics—but its significance spoke to the gospel of light. She was a helper, a healer, and now sought to be a selfless sacrifice.

The dark forces at his sides remained primed for slaughter, hinged upon his order, like rabid attack dogs pulling tautly upon their master’s leashes. And yet, the Shadow Prince held his tongue, refusing the command that would almost certainly overwhelm the steadfast knights and the draw of their swords.

“…if you were willing to join me.” Charôţh tasted the words presented to him, plunging his mind into the realm of possibility. There had been scant occasions when a woman had roused his interest above his lust for conquest, but the healer girl had awoken something primal. Even those of the dark were privy to spiritual revelation, and it was beyond certain he and she were woven. There was the promise of ventures across euphoric planes that transcended the thrusts of hips and throaty moans…

The mark of Ætranos had been little more than a formality. A bi-product of his unexpected fascination, an empyrean oath that could be broken with only the cost of loneliness… which at one point, would have been an acceptable forfeit. There had simply been no time for loneliness, not during his rampages across now conquered lands. But now his life’s ambitions were nearing their inevitable climax… and what then? What would there be left to dominate?

Indeed, the mark was simply an invitation for fate’s word, as it were. And now, before his very eyes, fate seemed to be speaking quite clearly. 

“Are you sure you’re willing, woman?” the Shadow Prince posed while stacking his arms across his chest. “Your life as it has been would vanish forever. For the rest of your days you would accompany my side as my betrothed.” As if his betrothed almost escaped his tongue, but his boldness was quick to make the correction.

“You would share my bed, tending to my whims and fancies… experience things beyond the scope of your comprehension, beyond fear.” Charôţh’s index finger raised, as if to say you mustn’t bring fear, fair maiden. Not to this agreement.

“If these conditions are acceptable to you,” Charôţh concluded, “then I shall concede towards withdrawal once more.” He then stepped to the side, allowing a path into the black, swirling void behind him.

“After you, if you’re so willing,” the Shadow Prince smiled while extending his arm. “But first, I must know your name.”


Her heart beat in the cage of her chest like a hummingbird’s wings; a bead of sweat dripped down the back of her neck even in the biting winter air. The mere act of regarding that inhuman army was taxing, let alone contemplating the much more permanent act of joining them in their domain.

The knights tried to maintain an unflappable demeanor, but it was obvious they were just as nervous as her. Many were praying that whatever was happening would spare them; many more were just waiting for when the snarling creatures charged.

As willing as one can be when under duress nearly spilled from her lips; sarcasm was a tempting outlet when trapped. Thankfully her mind mover faster than her tongue—at least in this instance—and her response was more measured.

“My life would be gone anyways with your prior course of action.” That and the lives of thousands, but it would not help to remind him of how many he would be forgoing the slaughter of; he seemed to revel the kill.

A title so grand as “betrothed” was surprising. Katya had expected “concubine” or “whore”. Perhaps “chattel”. What were his reasons for all this? Surely a warlord had no shortage of women he could threaten? But she was as likely to get an answer to that now as to “why kill the world?”.

The mere fact of whatever he had planned being beyond her comprehension was enough to justify fear, at least to any reasonable person. No one was entirely without fear of the unknown, let alone unknown surrounded by uncountable acts of slaughter. One could still glean the shape of an obscured thing by the ripples it produced.

But the thought that she could save her friends and fellows and neighbors and people from certain agony was enough to set her course. Fear was unavoidable, but it was the actions in spite of or because of it that held weight.

Plus, if it proved too unbearably unfathomable she would probably be able to find a means to end herself. A grim resolution to draw comfort from, and yet.

“I agree.”

Her steps did not falter—despite the leaden feel—even in the deeper patches of snow. She stopped only when next to him, not out of fear, but to turn and enfold his outstretched hand in one of hers. Soft and small.

“I am Katya Greenleaf. Let us be off then, dear Charôţh.” Cold fire shot through where the mark lay, tensing her jaw and sending ice water down her spine. But there was something more, some jolt of yearning connection that coiled around her spine like a climbing snake. Names held power, at least in some tales. Hopefully him knowing hers would now.

She could see his eyes now: an oddly human blue.

The girl—if permitted—would move to take him into that gaping unknown with her. If he truly considered then betrothed now, he should have little issue crossing the threshold with her.


In all honesty, the Shadow Prince expected the healer girl to balk at his terms, or at least attempt a bargain he would most surely reject. Instead she willingly surrendered, taking his hand as she readied herself for the unknown before her. Charôţh allowed himself a smile; she had impressed thus far, but the real challenge was about to begin.

“Very well, very good. I see that you are ready. But before we leave…”

With Katya’s hand still in his, he turned to the knights and “May the name of Katya Greenleaf be forever praised, and etched into legend. She has spared you all from certain destruction. I promise to treat her fairly and courteously on the other side, where the nest of shadows resides.” 

With that, the Shadow Prince took a long bow as his soldiers retreated from existence, and led Katya into the void portal as it swallowed them into another domain.

_____

They found themselves on a bridge made of what looked to be polished black marble, with faint red veins weaving through the sheen. Beyond the railings was a thick fog that shrouded a distant stretch of water on either side; the thick, maroon mass peering through the haze suggested that the moat consisted of blood. Groans of despair stretched rode along the gusts of wind that slid along their feet and past their ears. Looking above, the Shadow Prince’s castle resembled obsidian shards that stretched into, and perhaps past the heavens.

“Come, my dear,” Charôţh said as he beckoned Katya forward with a hand upon the small of her back. “It’s time to enjoy your new home.”

The entrance of the castle was a tall door made of a dark, oily oak, which parted slowly upon their approach. There was a sheet of shadow within its arch that concealed what lay within its gate, and for a moment they seemed to be entering another vessel of desolation.

The visual of the grand hall appeared suddenly. Upon a tall, circular staircase was the throne, made of marble with a back that arched outward like a crescent. Directly above the throne was the floating sculpture of an armored demoness, holding a pair of daggers in her hands and one clenched between her teeth, held in place with a magic that rejected a visual means of suspension. Her eyes blazed a red light that slid crimson contours across nearly every edge and bend, and her knees stretched into a lunging pose. Her broad, sprawling batwings cast sharp, angular shadows across the chair below her, swallowing it almost completely in darkness.

Flanking the wide, black rug of the hall were statues on ribbed pillars, some resembling beasts of lore and legend, and others that were simply horrifying. A circular void similar to what Katya experienced earlier was seen above one column… depicting a countless array of charred arms… reaching through with hopeless grasps at nothing but air, seeking a hold to pull them from their prison of nothingness. A closer inspection revealed the desperate hands periodically twisted and clenched. 

Indeed, these statues also seemed alive in their presumed stasis, as one ox-like beast with an axe snorted its welcome as the pair passed the glare of its searing, fiery eyes.

“I hope this isn’t… overwhelming for you, Katya,” Charôţh said, with the slightest tinge of apology in his voice. A look on his face, however, revealed the ghost of a smile playing on his lips.

“If you would follow me…” the Shadow Prince said while leading the way towards the left of the grand hall. Another door would greet them, similar but smaller to the grand hall’s entrance, and parting subserviently just the same. Inside was a long hallway with paintings on either side, exquisite portraits of what may have been predecessors of the Shadow Prince’s dominance. Some bore a striking resemblance, others appeared to be distant relatives. At the end of the hall was another door, more modest with its impact, and needing the twist of a brass knob to open.

“Where you will sleep, my dear.” Charôţh stood aside to allow Kayta’s glimpse into the bedroom. Despite a pair of busts of what could only be described as screaming souls, the room seemed almost shockingly tame compared to the sights thus far. The bed was wide and expectedly tucked with black sheets and blankets, enclosed by a tall canopy with dark, translucent drapes with intricate patterns. The oily-oak doors of what was almost certainly a wardrobe could be seen, as well as another that possibly offered a washroom. Oblong windows allowed a grayish light to shed through the room, creating a sort of simmering mist that almost cloaked the floor.

“You are free to come and go as you wish, but this castle you shall never leave without me,” Charôţh said with a sternness that almost constituted a warning. “And there’s something else…”

Leading them back out into the grand hall, the Shadow allowed the door to shut behind him before looking to his left, the area behind the throne that sat atop its coned staircase. There would be seen a series of archways with red curtains exhibiting a vertical series of mysterious glyphs, draped with swathes of shadow. He gestured towards them with his gaze affixed on Katya.

“The Temporal Gallery,” Charôţh explained. “Rooms that live, breath, and move as we do. Rooms above time, throughout plausibility. Even I am unaccustomed to their mysteries. You are forbidden to explore them on your own, as the absence of a spiritual anchor might damn you within their clutches forever. But perhaps in time, we can do so together.” He turned to his green-eyed guest and smiled.

“There’s more to see, dear Katya, but before that… are you hungry, my dear?” Charôţh clapped his hands with a soft emphasis as he looked towards the opposite end of the hall. “My dining room is cozy and intimate, and I promise the dishes from my chefs will appetize you, despite any misgivings you may have gathered thus far.”


The last thing Katya wanted was to have to look back, but Charôţh had forced it of her by turning. Her eyes squeezed shut. She couldn’t look at them, couldn’t look back at the home and all the friends she was leaving.

But she knew she’d regret if if she didn’t.

With one last look, she regarded her fellows: a mix of confusion, relief, and tinges of sorrow played across the canvas of their faces. All Katya could offer them were silent tears—tears she could and would not give to Charôţh—and a wan smile before they stepped into the dark. They would be able to go on; they would be preserved.

When the landscape reshaped in front of her, it was not to the expected void. The physician had no idea what to expect in this strange new realm—at least they still seemed to use structures, which was somewhat more typical than she had figured.

Though most structures didn’t have red veins pulsing through the brickwork, and generally could only be built so high before the walls had to be unfeasibly thick to support it.

The liquid below matched the color of his armor far too much for her liking, but it surely couldn’t be blood: that’d be far too impractical. As if impracticality held weight here, where the stone defied weight and gravity enough to pierce the firmament.

Her spine stiffened as his hand settled on it, nudging her forward. It made for an oddly serene image: in pose, he resembled a doting husband, one hand on hers and the other about her waist. The lingering wails rather ruined the whole thing, setting her teeth tense in her jaw. Those poor people. . .

The great hall was an impressive display of artistry and scale, though the choice of statues left much to be desired. Who waa the demon woman, so important as to be above the throne itself?

She startled at the movement of the ox. The goal of many architectural structures—beyond the basic security and shelter—was to awe and intimidate. But who could he be attempting that with here? Whoever it was, it seemed that goal had many more avenues available when magic so heavily saturated a realm. Her face twisted at his “concern”, more so the smug, sardonic bent to his lips. He was obviously enjoying her discomfort—by far among the least of the sufferings he seemed to enjoy.

“It is. . .rather much. But not beyond at least surface-level comprehension thus far. One may call the pervading torture a touch excessive.” Katya tried to keep her voice level, droll, but it hitched and wavered revealingly as her gaze fixed to the grasping portal. If the ox was alive in some capacity. . .

They thankfully moved on to the thankfully mundane bedroom before she could contemplate their agony too deeply.

The mists covering the floor seemed to move and coil playfully about her ankles; she shifted her legs to try and ward them off. The thought that her first ventures into true intimacy would be in this den of darkness, with this creature that killed the world. . . it dropped a leaden weight in the pit of her stomach.

Hopefully she could find something to cover the busts; the bed looked comfortable, at least. Were they alive too?

If she were free to roam the halls, perhaps she could find a ladder, sheets or rope as a tether, and curtain rod or comparable tool to try and help pull the pained souls from portal in the hall. To try such unaided would only result in her being pulled in, and though the attempt would not likely yield, she still had to try.

Not being permitted to leave was expected, frankly, and barely worth considering: he could and likely would destroy Cirrane if she reneged on her promise.

The next step of the tour hurt her eyes; looking too long at the runed archways invoked an aching pressure in the walls of her mind. It was more out of necessity than desire that she turned her gaze to him as he spoke, though the sight of him invoked its own set of concerns. How could this monster look this human? His eyes held a compelling spark in them.

The depths of the gallery certainly were intriguing, though dangerous if even the lord of this very domain could not navigate them entirely. Curious.

“I could afford to eat, yes.” More so the chance to think and process in a hopefully more mundane environment, but food would not go amiss—provided it was edible enough. Rationing had taken its toll on all of Cirrane, rendering all far more lean than the years prior.

“Besides, I imagine the rest of the tour will only prompt more questions, I already have so many I’d like to try an address beforehand.” It was then that his mention of chefs registered: if he had staff who could survive this realm, perhaps all the people taken here still persisted?


The dining room was scarcely larger than the bedroom, with a doorless entrance to the adjacent kitchen, where the clinks and clatters of dishes could be heard as unseen chefs kept busy with their culinary preparations.

“Let us then sit, eat, chat… and question,” the Shadow Prince said while extending his arm to the modestly-sized dining table. “I very rarely have opportunities to entertain dinner guests,” he remarked as he sat upon his chair and watched Katya do the same. “This is a bit of a treat for me… a welcome aside from my dedication of conquest.” 

There were goblets awaiting the pair at their seats, as well as dishes and silverware; all black with intricate red and gold embellishments. An ebony drape ran along the table, embroidered with alternating matte and lustrous stripes. 

On the walls were an array paintings, portraying a variety of still-lifes, landscapes, and oceanscapes with ships, each of course subdued with the range of their palettes, ordained with black frames.

A well-dressed waiter with gray, expressionless eyes approached with a wordless welcome and poured what appeared to be a chardonay wine for Katya. For Charôţh a thick, dark liquid was poured from an unmarked bottle. The Shadow Prince twirled his goblet pleasingly as a basket of biscuits was placed between then, their aroma mouthwatering and not without their own visual touch of darkness, being covered in poppy seeds.

A long sip of his drink preceded his next words to Katya. “You’re quite beautiful, you know,” he’s say with a sideways pull of his grin. “And delightfully virtuous. I can smell the innocence across every inch of your body.” Amazingly, a soft, inebriated blush had already risen to Charôţh’s cheeks. 

“It was my intention to partake of your body tonight,” he continued, the gleam in his eyes clearly enjoying his own forwardness. Charôţh’s demeanor has certainly relaxed while his eyes studied Katya’s reactions intently. 

“But alas, you’ve been through much today, have you not? Leaving your old world abruptly behind… I’d be remiss to explore your thighs with the weight of the day’s turbulence still heavy on your mind.” Another sip of his black wine swished around in his mouth. “Perhaps in the morning…” he’d add, almost absentmindedly. 

Behind Charôţh and around the room, Katya would surely notice the changes on the walls… the paintings which one presented innocuous imagery had changed… now depicting sexual entanglements that clearly involved she and Charôţh. One scene illustrated an overhead view of Katya pinned below the Shadow Prince with her legs wrapped around his waist… yet another was an unmistakable close-up of Katya’s bare breasts, her nipples perked and firm. All the while, the color of the Shadow Prince’s eyes had shifted from a blue to a warm purple that bordered on a cherry red. 

Without warning he lifted from his seat and reached for the side of Katya’s face, cupping it softly with fingertips that gently stroked the area of skin below her ear. Slowly his hand trailed to her jawline… then descended along the side of her neck with a brief pause of pressure that seemed interested in her pulse… then further still to the top of her chest with a final, gentle squeeze across the fullness of her breast.

“I do have certain tastes in lovemaking, my dear, some of which may be… challenging for you at first. But I promise that my patience will be…”

The waiter’s arrival interrupted Charôţh’s thought as he lay down bowls upon his and Katya’s salad plates.

“Ah! Soup!” Charôţh said excitedly. “I do believe our main dish is some sort of fowl,” he’d say to Katya with a low voice while leaning towards her, as if sharing a secret. A wink accompanied his playfulness, but still held an air of sultriness.

“Now then. You had some questions for me, yes, my dear?” Charôţh said while plopping back into his chair as he fumbled for his spoon on the table.


More out of habit than anything else, she unwrapped the cloth layered over her hair, letting the cornsilk braid fall back behind her. It was rude to have one’s head covered at the table, and though she did not often run in noble circles she was still raised as such. In a time that no longer seemed real.

“You do seem to take precious few breaks from conquest; it makes me wonder why you stopped on my account.” Bitterness snuck into her words, black as his wine.

The placement of the tableware prompted speculation: he had not arrived at Cirrane with the sole intent to take her. They were unlikely to have been set before he left: did he have some sort of direct magical link to or hold on the staff? She had seen him give no orders.

Katya gave the server a pleading look, desperate for some sign of humanity, and found none.

The dream-field of poppies flashed through her mind as she regarded the biscuits, quickly dissipating. There were concerns of indefinite entrapment upon eating food of this realm, but she was already damned. The girl took one and split it in half, savoring the buttery comfort.

With it, an opioid numbness washed over her fears: enough to hide the edges like a rising tide, but not submerge then entirely. Katya had worked with milk of the poppy before; she knew full well that poppyseeds in this state should not have this effect.

It was when she was first partaking of her drink that he stated his initial intent. The fruity taste felt far less refreshing down her windpipe. Her eyes fixed his with a watchful stare as he continued, yet more red tinting her cheeks. It was obvious he was seeking some shocked or repulsed reaction, as if she were some pearl-clutching dowager. She would try her best to ensure he did not receive it.

His humanity seemed so variable: she had met him a barely-fathomable revenant heralding the doom of the world, now he seemed merely a sickly rake, eating and drinking and taking drunken delight in his planned iniquity. A warm shiver ran through her: the sinful slant of his lips promised much.

“Indeed, it’d be a rather dour wedding night as it were. My gown will still be usable whenever. . .that occurs.” Katya motioned sarcastically at her conservative white medic’s robes: a wedding dress of sorts.

His words soon affirmed the promise of his lascivious smirk, and she could no longer ignore the shifting paintings.

They were terribly. . .distracting; a blush not induced by the alcohol painted her cheeks and lower still. The images were inevitable, perhaps it was best she try and grow accustomed to them. Her eyes lingered on some of the more lascivious scenes when he moved to her. Was he blushing as well? What had happened to his eyes? She had not thought him capable of possessing color, let alone—

He was soon on her, touching her with the reverence of a penitent promised absolution. After so many years of struggle and paranoia, the mere pretense of affectionate touch was enough to unleash the floodgates. Her head tilted into his palm, cheek warm and soft against his fingers. Heat grew in her chest; her pulse raced as if to greet his touch. It no longer felt quite as icy. An effect of his inebriation, perhaps?

A faint groan slipped from her as he clasped over the roughspun cloth covering her chest; everything felt too sensitized. The sound soon took a less pleased note it the interruption, whether out of relief or disappointment she could not quite tell.

The waiter placed their dishes without affect; the poor soul seemed bereft of higher thought, at least from what little she had seen of him. The heat within quickly cooled.

The soup appeared conventional enough: a light chicken soup. Presumably the stock came from the bones and lesser cuts of whatever fowl was to be their main course. Hopefully it would not prove foul.

Small spoonfuls were eaten as she pondered what avenue to take. She could not squander his likely limited willingness to indulge her. Few would have the patience to address every single lurking question swirling about her head.

“What happens to the people you take?”

Hopefully the questions of “why did you take them” and “what is this place” would have some sidelong light shed on them as he answered the first. If light could even find purchase in this realm.

She dipped the other half of the biscuit into her soup before nibbling at it: she figured she deserved at least some narcotic relief, and the flavor helped bolster the bread.


Charôţh savored a bite of his soup, swishing it within his mouth as he watched and listened. Katya appeared noticeably more relaxed before him, though there were contemptuous pulses that flared across her eyes. These too will pass, the Shadow Prince thought to himself before collecting his words.

“They are alive,” the Shadow Prince finally answered, in such a manner to address an underlying concern. “Though perhaps they themselves lack that realization. My shadow forces seek out companions as those do in the realms of light… as well as intimacy and sexual succor.” A toss of his goblet was swallowed with an audible gulp, and the flush on his face had pulled the complexion to a nearly human shade.

“They are now citizens in the realms of shadow, certainly for a long time… perhaps for the rest of their days. Their existence needn’t be fraught with turmoil and grief, if they are willing to submit to the desires of their abductors.”

“They are acting on the primal impulses that unite us all,” Charôţh continued. “Sexual climax is a touch upon the plane of euphoric bliss that weaves itself across all beings, both dark and light and in between. It lingers and looms on my own mind, even as my passion fully invests itself into my bid for conquest.” 

With his elbow on the table, Charôţh’s fingertips dangled his goblet by its rim with casual twirls. “To climax is to be one with Creation, for those fleeting, succulent seconds. It can be quite addictive, as you very well may know for yourself.” His smile flitted curiously.

A trio of waiters arrived with pleasant offerings of smells and sights. The fowl was unveiled as chicken, delivered on an oblong platter between the Prince and Katya, glazed with a thick blackberry sauce and garnished accordingly.  

Slices of chicken breast were carved and placed upon Charôţh’s and Katya’s plates by a waiter’s patient knife and fork. A lightly sauced vegetable medley was portioned by another attendant, and the pair’s drinks were promptly refilled.

“And perhaps that is where my… challenging tastes come into play,” Charôţh said, resuming where he left off. “I’d like for you to fight against that climax… deny yourself the satisfaction of its release. If my simple command isn’t enough of an anchor, then perhaps the looming shadows of punishment will provide the proper motivation.” 

“After all, as one who selflessly administers aid, your earthly desires should be set aside for those of others, yes?” The Shadow Prince’s hand reached once again towards Katya, seizing her breast with a firm clasp, kneading it for a number of seconds before a gentle tug of her nipple accompanied its departure. 

“Who knows… your disdain for me might carry your discipline far across our intimate entanglements. But passion can be quite infectious… let’s hope it leaves you in a state of perpetual want.” The grin on Charôţh’s face flared deviously.

“We shall see for ourselves tonight,” the Shadow Prince declared, straightening himself in his chair. “I see no point in a delay. The sooner you acclimate yourself to my desires, the better.”


She sighed with an emotion too weak to be relief, but incomparable to anything else. They were prisoners of war, taken by a conqueror for labor and exploitation. Not dissimilar from that period of roving warlords that lay far closer to the now than many would like to think, well within the realm of comprehensibility. The people persisted, even in whatever wretched state they had been trapped in.

Her eyes lingered on his hands as he spoke and twirled his goblet, the sinuous grace of his hands combined with the quiet intensity with which he spoke wove a compelling heat that settled upon her. The memory of his touch lingered all-too much, augmented by the lascivious paintings. He had a strange handsomeness, she decided: lean and pale.

“I suppose I’ll have to take your word on the matter of, ah, climaxes for now; as you’ve said, I’ve never, been with another. And my self-produced ‘climaxes’ have generally been rote and underwhelming.” Indeed, for her they had generally been little more than a machine-like session of joylessly pressing at herself to elicit stimulus; she had difficulty understanding how much weight folks often regarded the matter.

Something far more akin to relief than before flooded through her as the “fowl” he seemed to take such fiendish delight in foreshadowing was revealed to be a mere chicken. A delicious one, at that. It was something of a comfort that the beings here were still human enough to require food, at least enough to have the infrastructure for it. She ate vigorously: meat was amongst the scarcest food available during the years of rationing, one that was much-needed.

It certainly didn’t hurt that it was so well-prepared.

“If those climaxes are what all the fuss is about, I don’t believe I’ll have too much trouble resisting.” Her eyes gleamed sharp, mouth tilted smugly with the veiled challenge: “show me how good it can be”. Perhaps the inebriation was lending her too much courage.

As if in chastisement, his hand was upon her again, almost as warm as a human’s now. Light pinpricks danced at the back of her neck with his ministrations, even through the thick white cloth. Such promise seemed to linger in those touches, even the hint of pain at his pinch that drove an airy, startled sound from her throat. It was only a good deal after he released her that she gathered herself enough to respond.

“Generally, aiding others is my desire, but it’s been in such a way that’s more substantive than fleeting moments of extraneous pleasure and not at the cost of all of me.” Katya was still a person, after all. She deserved pieces of herself that were just hers.

His sudden rise and resolution was startling, but expected. It took only a moment’s hesitation for her to rise with him: it would be best to try and get this evening’s tribulations over with; perhaps then he’d leave her alone in the morning, and she’d be free to explore.

But despite her rationalizations, the girl would be lying to herself if she denied any curiosity, any desire.

“Very well, I suppose it only makes sense that the farce of this betrothal extends to the marriage bed. Let’s be done with it.” Less venom than she wanted had made it in her voice.


The smile that curled below Charôţh’s cheeks relished the subtle challenges that Katya presented. There would be a moment’s consideration before his decision was made. “Let’s see just how ready you are, my dear Katya.”

There was a sudden snap of the Shadow Prince’s fingers, and both he and Katya found themselves seated upon the black velvet blankets of his bed. The gray mist danced and flowed along its foundation, and traces of candlelight emanated a soft orange glow across the bedroom.

“My apologies for the hastiness, but your beauty makes it quite difficult for me to wait.” The grin never left Charôţh’s face as a series of hand gestures invoked a sightless presence around Katya… a swoop of his palm commanded an invisible force of arms to remove her surcoat and dress, discarded unceremoniously to the floor alongside her wimple. She was then directed to lay upon her back with a backwards pull of her shoulders, wearing nothing but her undergarments as the Shadow Prince dissolved his own fittings into nothingness with another snap.

“This I save for myself,” the Shadow Prince cooed as he freed Katya’s loins from their tantalizing barricade. A series of tugs slid up the softness of her legs, culminating with a careless toss of cloth. 

A fluid, cup-like motion of his hand then parted her thighs. From there, the unseen strength relinquished its hold as the Shadow Prince positioned the swollen tip of his rigid cock against the flowery folds between Katya’s thighs. His fevered gaze dangled downwards to his lover’s face, buttressed by his thin, muscular arms and shoulders.

“You are mine, Katya… now and forever.” With a motion of his waist, he slipped inside his betrothed.

The succulent sensation of warmth spilled across his body. There was a brief moment of effort to pierce Katya’s shield of purity, and then his cock was fully immersed… arching upwards and inwards, as it burrowed as deeply as its excitement would allow. 

“Oh… oh yes, Katya.” The thrusts were heavy and rhythmic, each with a second’s savor of ecstasy at the nethermost arc. The pleasure built quickly until a final, desperate buck of his hips swallowed every inch of his cock, accompanied by euphoric moans that the Shadow Prince seemed almost to fight against, muffling their intensity with pursed lips.

As he flooded Katya with his seed, Charôţh’s eyes pulsed between a fiery red and a vivid sky blue… refusing to close amidst the throes of ecstasy as they affixed upon Katya’s own forest-green orbs. His pants climbed from within his throat as sweat collected upon his brow, pattering against Katya’s forehead in bulbous droplets.

His cock eventually eased, shrinking back from its spasmic frenzy, until its head nestled within Katya’s opening with aftershocks of elated exhaustion. The eyes of the Shadow Prince cooled to a neutral cerulean, and his mind seemed to return from nirvana… some celestial place above the descriptions of language.

There we are,” he sighed throatily before maneuvering his spent body to Katya’s side. “You did well, my betrothed. Though you yourself shall never partake of such delights, know that I am quite satisfied.” The Shadow Prince then shifted to his side towards Katya, supporting the chin of his inquisitive face with a bent elbow’s palm. “For the moment, at least.”


Once again, the sense that… something… was conveniently absent from Kelyn’s response flagged Charles’ scrupulous instincts. He of course didn’t care to interrupt their momentum with an inquiry, as their rapport was growing by leaps and bounds with every exchange, but somehow understood that whatever her secret was, it would rear its head sooner or later. It might raise an eyebrow but he’d be sure to shrug it off… he was good at that sort of thing, and to each his own, as they say. He had his own crosses to bear, after all.


Her breath caught in her throat as they were whisked straight onto the bed; too little time was given to recover before being stripped and shoved onto her back. An attempt to cover her chest was made, but the force that had pulled her back kept her pinioned.

His own disrobing could not be seen, only surmised as his now-bare arms crept up her legs like a grasping spider—her head remained pinned as well. One that had taken her braies and left her shivering.

The pressure keeping her stiff had ceased now, at least. The first thing she did was cover her chest as best she could with her slender arms, the next was to look at him, a hunter poised for the kill.

There was an allure to the intensity with which he regarded her, the sheer closeness. The weighty finality of his words. It would only get him so far on its own, however. A squeak of fear slipped from her lips at the feel of his heat so close to her junction.

The girl yelped and squeezed her eyes shut when he sheathed himself within her, unyiedingly him.

Though the languid atmosphere of the dinner had relaxed her by the most minute amount, she had no preparation for this. His cock abraded through her, her passage hot as a crucble, tight and dry as a drumhead.

Perhaps the overwhelming sensation of being filled with another could have grown tolerable at least, given time and encouragement. Charôţh gave her neither. The man tore within her some part so deeply lodged she had not realized its pervasion, and the pain was commensurate.

He would not get her tears, she promised herself again. But god it hurt; he was splitting her in two, carving her from herself and replacing all she was with him. Even her breath was pushed out of her, each thrust forced a gasping exhale, each retreat a pained whimper.

Katya shoved her mind elsewhere then, it politely showed itself out of the room that was her skull. Now it was more like she was an impassive observer, watching a different woman be brutalized by a conqueror. The play of colors in his eyes was more akin to a novel sunset now.

It was only when he was done that she returned to herself, though her emotions felt muffled. Further away than her body, for now.

With disdain, she wiped his sweat from her brow, trying to force as much air back into her lungs as she could and trying not to retch. For a time, words escaped her and her thoughts, only being drawn back into sharp, targeted focus as he slipped from her and spoke. His words gave her mind enough to work with to snap back:

“Well, the supposed delights weren’t exactly difficult to resist; 2 minutes of pained squelching noises between my thighs is hardly the most compelling siren.”

Shaking anger laced through her voice, barely-suppressed. He had robbed her of her first intimacy, turned what was supposed to be a pleasurable, sweet exploration of sensation and body into a careless, selfish exercise. More the fool she for expecting anything selfless of a warlord; pontificating about pleasure was far easier than delivering it, after all.

“Perhaps I could find a book to read for next time, if this is to be a regular infliction. Do something intricate with my hair, maybe.”

The bitterness continued into her sigh as she sat up and moved to undo her braid, hair streaming like spun gold over her shoulders. Her core ached as she bent to pick up her discarded clothes, tossing them at the busts she could have sworn were leering at them. The wet trickle of his seed sent a realization through her, one that came with a deathly weight.

“We need silphium root.” The physician stated with a notable lack of affecf, gaze aimed at anywhere but Charôţh. A new fear arose, a new cost that she may have to pay making itself known with the cloying heat now sliding out of her.

Would he force her to carry a child as well?


The exhilarating flood of release had already slipped its hold from Charôţh’s mind and loins, and the realization began to settle that Katya had not quite enjoyed her own experience. The coping sound of distance had already laid its claim upon his lover’s voice, and the ghost of a frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. A long moment passed between them, solemn and dispassionate.

“We need silphium root,” Charôţh repeated, seemingly speaking to something other than Katya. Within a few moments, there was a single, loud knock at the door. “Come,” the Shadow Prince called, prompting a small, black-robed servant to enter and scurry to the healer’s side of the bed. Upon closer inspection, the servant was only a robe, with a hood draped around an invisible head and unseen hands offering a plate before Katya’s presence.

Silphium root at your request, m’lady,” said a prickly, nasally voice. A brief presentation of the plate’s contents preceded the next point. “Also the stem of the sky flower, which will nullify your potential pregnancy, should you decide to consume it.” The offerings were left on the nightstand, and the servant dismissed himself without another word.

In the meantime, the Shadow Prince had sat up on the edge of the bed, busying himself with his own whims. A tucked-away violin’s case floated across the bedroom and into his hands by mental command, and before long the instrument was tucked under his chin alongside a bow in his hand. Music began to play, frenetic and choppy at first before leveling into crisp, poignant waves. After a time, the musical piece culminated into a shuddery, deeply somber crescendo, after which Charôţh withdrew the violin from his chin, breathing heavily as if the effort had drained him.

Silence descended like an curtain upon the bedroom once more, and the Shadow Prince’s eyes turned to Katya, now the color of a faded, overcast blue.

“I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to enjoy your first act of physical love,” Charôţh stated with a genuine sense of regret in his voice. “Luckily, this will be far from your only act.” A smile sifted to his face, one that seemed to offer encouragement as opposed to grim realization.

Still sitting opposite his lover on the bed, Charôţh’s hand caressed a pocket of empty air before him. Katya would feel his disembodied touch across her cheek, tender and reassuring. Love’s intoxicating release seemed to touch its influence upon even the darkest of beings.

“I allowed my lust to overrule any conscientious considerations, at the cost of your own suffering.” There was a surprising note of apology in his words, but also a noticeable reluctance to verbalize it.

“If it’s of any consolation to you, my first act of intimacy was fairly joyless as well. I was forced as a young age to copulate with a contemptible witch, and her embrace was cold and listless. It was quite the relief, once the exchange was over.” The Shadow Prince sighed, but there was little regret expressed in his breath. “Such are the ceremonious coming-of-age rituals for beings of the Dark. We are taught to disassociate sexual release with attraction, but the curvaceous offerings of mankind have only grown more… tantalizing with the passing of generations.”  

Charôţh leaned the violin case against a nightstand before shifting to lay on the bed, hands tucked behind his head while staring upwards. He often found a silent comfort in trailing his eyes along the ornate carvings which splayed and spiraled across the ceiling, showing themselves through the translucent fabric of the bed’s canopy.

“At any rate, what’s done is done. I would caution against training yourself to resent the act of lovemaking, since our entanglements will be common occurrences. I can only hope that our… your experiences improve, with time and patience.” A certain coldness has once again taken residence in Charôţh’s voice, and he quietly welcomed its return. In the end, he thought, Katya’s pleasure is a mere supplement to my own, secondary and unnecessary. Such is her weight to bare.


Katya pulled the sheets to cover herself at the knock, the black fabric cool and soft across her bare skin. The servant’s lack of hnads was noticed as soon as he entered, the lack of anything else when it approached.

“Ah, thank you.” Still, it wouldn’t be polite not to thank the thing, even if might only a manifestation.

The girl ate the bitter herbs, the taste in her mouth now matching the roiling in her stomach. At least she was offered a choice in this.

The music was unexpected; more so the fact that such a creature could produce anything of beauty. The symphony held groef, boundless enough to nearly bring her to tears in the reverie. A shuddering breath escaped her as the sorrowful threnody finished, as if she could breathe out all the melancholy that plagued them. It lingered enough to quaver her voice, even in the wake of his remorseless non-apology.

“Yes, you did. And it is ineeed of little consolation; it means you might know something of how wretched it can be and still chose to inflict it on me.” And likely countless others. Hurt leaked into her voice, creeping as if there was actually any affection for him to have betrayed.

Their wedding night would set the pattern, she realized. If she could not coax him to consider her now, the odds of doing so would decrease each rote, joyless day.

“If all the experiences are to be like that, I see little natural reaction but to resent them. Why mark me at all if you treat your betrothed like a paid harlot?” His caress mocked her further; the facade of tenderness only seemed to mantle him when it did not ask anything remotely taxing.

No, her own lack of experience had not moved him; a different tack was needed, even if risky. Katya turned to look at him now, eyes gleaming emeralds, lit with cold fire.

“I suppose I should have expected your skills to be lacking. A warlord used only to taking from the unwilling could hardly be expected to have developed any capacity for delivering pleasure to another.” Her voice turned imperious, filled with a power and confidence she did not currently possess. Perhaps he’d actually respond to her less subtle challenge, given his disregard for the less overt one, his ignoring of the petty snipes. Sympathy wpuld obviously not move him, perhaps the desire for dominance would.

“I don’t think you even could bring me to these supposed peaks you have no problem expounding about.” A smug slant marked her smile.


It swiftly dawned on Charôţh that he had previously not spoken of his sexual breaking to any creature, light or dark or of mankind. No effort was made to keep it hidden, but there was never any occasion to share it, even with the wenches and slaves enjoyed in his past. He had confessed it to Katya without hesitation, and his revelation left him equally relieved and perturbed. 

Involving himself in the realms of intimacy and vulnerability has conjured strange reflections. Were these wise endeavors, befitting of the Shadow Prince? There was a lack of concern that was alarming in itself, and perhaps even this fell short of the true crisis before him. He had ravished and ravaged the woman promised to him by prophesy… and his mind incredulously felt the stony weight of regret. Was his impervious soul slowly being weathered? Could Katya somehow sense this weakness, and sought to press the only advantage she had?

Charôţh rebuked these potentialities, but admitted his admiration. Through her resentment Katya meant to challenge him, all the while refusing the river of hopelessness that would have drowned any other woman. 

The look on the Shadow Prince’s face shifted from incredulity to a sort of buoyant acceptance. Only the Fates were privy to the nature of their love and how it would blossom, but Charôţh moved to enforce this love, whether it be rooted in fear or affection, or some unspeakable combination. 

“My dear Katya,” Charôţh said in response, after a curious narrowing of his eyes. “I’ll offer you an even greater advantage. Your sweet slit shall forever be free from my cock’s intrusion, lest I succeed to pleasure you to ecstasy another way.”

The Shadow Prince lifted to his knees and crawled along the bed towards the maiden of light, situating himself before her pair of pale legs as his mauve gaze devoured her bare body. He then leaned forward and lowered his lips, pulling close to her wet cleft as his hands parted her knees.

“Hear me well, maiden Katya, for I am nothing if not a creature of my word. Reject the climb of release, and my cock shall nary again slip its way between your thighs. Even if your body should surrender its resistance, perhaps you’ll hide it well, and I’ll be none the wiser.”

With that, Katya felt a spongy wetness against her clit.

Charôţh was not quite a connoisseur of the nub that hid itself within a woman’s core, but perhaps it didn’t matter. As harshly as his cock had thrust, his tongue was conversely tender. Flutters and flicks ran up and down along Katya’s folds. Her clit was gently sucked and tugged with puckered lips, contrasted by hot, deliberate gusts of breath. A rhythm was established and rarely wavered, one which indulged in time and methodical exploration.

All the while, the mind of the Shadow Prince had already settled. The world was his to claim, as well at Katya of the Light.


Antimanna

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


The alchemist sat himself upon the throne once belonging to King Xarele, now forcibly removed from power and imprisoned. The side of his face rested meditatively against his palm as he stared out upon the grand hallway before him, flanked by marble statues of what he assumed to be former majesties and equestrian champions. There were towering archways adorned with gold embellishments and colorful frescoes, exquisite paintings of queens and princesses whose alluring features had traveled generations… delusions of ostentatious grandeur, as far as the alchemist was concerned. His new world would do away with such archaic traditions and usher in a new societal construct, the natural consequence of his life’s ambitions.

Charles the Alchemist, the enlightened ruler to end all rulers. A sententious smirk played along the corner of his mouth.

In actuality, Charles didn’t like thrones. They were cold to the touch and often sent unpleasant ripples of gooseflesh across the length of his limbs. He also didn’t view himself as any sort of monarch, meant to bear the weight and wonders of a crown. In his own eyes he was instead a messiah, the chosen Godhand delivering to the world its deepest unspoken desire: a riddance of magic in all its manifestations. By the grace of the Maker he had discovered the means to achieve this goal, and its implementation had been remarkably swift… driven by the relentless antimanna, the substance that reversed, rejected and nullified magic’s influence upon all of Great Earth’s creations, far and wide.

Those beyond his soldiers and dignitaries, however, saw Charles the Alchemist as a monster. Healers were robbed of their ability to heal, their white magics nullified after ages of sacred practice, subjecting them to illnesses once thought abolished. Dark mages lost their mastery of the elements and could no longer mount a resistance, their sputtering spellcasts fizzling like a boot upon a fallen match’s flame. Dragons and other masters of the skies could no longer soar… more often than not, they simply withered and died. A world full of magic and wonder was now being tamed, for better or worse, by a tidal force the likes of which the world had never seen… or could ever prepare for. 

All things considered, there had been remarkably little bloodshed, at least from the cold objectivity of the great Alchemist. Those who were willingly subjugated were cleansed and rehabilitated. Maidens were given opportunities to marry soldiers of the Great Army… soon afterward, they were promptly reinstated in their villages. There were, of course, the stubborn lots who would never, could never see the need for magic’s abolishment…. and they were dealt with appropriately. This great cleansing needn’t be a struggle, the Great Alchemist thought, if only the world would understand magic’s futility.

Even then, despite the momentum of his crusade that seemed sanctioned by the Fates themselves, there still existed those who somehow bubbled magic to the surface of the river that was drowning it…

“Commander Charles,” came a voice from the throne’s hallway, startling him from his heavy contemplations.

“Hmm… yes?” The Great Alcehmist’s eyes squinted through a nearby window’s beam of morning light, speckled with bright dots of dancing dust. His chief advisor, lieutenant Aldridge, revealed himself with a salute and a clap of his boots.

“My apologies in disturbing you, sir, but I wanted to share news of the captured sorceress…” The advisor paused to swallow before continuing. “She’s had another one of her… outbursts.”

“Truly?” Charles’ voice was colored with a faint fascination. “Was it… dealt with, like the others?”

“Our elite sentries managed to contain her, yes. But it was quite the struggle.”

“I see…” Charles’ voice trailed, as if swallowed by thought. “Very well, then,” he proclaimed loudly, as if settling upon some grand revelation. “Bring her to me.”

The lieutenant’s eyes widened slightly. “Commander, I don’t believe that to be…”

Charles held up a finger to close the matter. “I shall speak with her myself and subsequently determine what course will be taken to ensure that her stubbornness is… appropriately harnessed.”

“Of course, Commander. Right away, sir.” Lieutenant Aldridge noded and bowed, still with an uncertain gaze, before he excused himself from the Great Alchemist’s presence.

___

She came escorted by a contingent of troops, her wrists and ankles shackled, nudged along from the small of her back by the butt of a rifle. The ‘sorceress’ was guided through a massive, egressed doorway carved from sacred oak and onto the lengthy scarlet rug that led to Xarele’s former throne, which was seated upon a small, circular staircase. Charles kept his keen, calculating glare upon her until she was presented before him, standing tall as if ready to be sentenced by a judge.

The woman would see a tall man with a sturdy build, his legs casually crossed as he sat. Eyes of greenish amber complemented waves of mahogany hair that swept across his forehead and just above his eyebrows. His soft olive skin presented its imperfections shamelessly, with moles and freckles likely obtained from the sun’s persistent touch across many years of outdoor work. His attire was almost shockingly simple, especially when contrasted with the royal throne upon which he was seated… a plain, white button shirt with beige slacks and suspenders attempted no extravagance whatsoever. 

“Well met, my dear,” Charles offered as greeting to the woman standing before him. “I suppose you’ve already deduced the reason you were brought to me.” The pursed smile across his lips exhibited an aloof, almost patronizing quality.

“It seems as though your tantrums have been… problematic.” There was an arrogance in his eyes, however, that relayed their own words. But we managed to reign you in, just the same.

The pause in the air hung for a few moments before Charles audibly drew in a breath. “I place no hope in my attempts to have you understand the necessity of my conquest,” he declared through a reconciliatory sigh. “However, I can make arrangements for your transition to be as…  painless as possible. For example, I can free your friends and family from my dungeons… if you would only ensure your cooperation henceforth.”

The smile that followed appeared more genuine on the Great Alchemist’s face. “Before you answer, my dear, may I know your name?” he asked affably.


Anyone present could easily deduce the identity of the woman brought before the false messiah. She had eyes that glowed like sunstruck marbles, the unmistakable mark of a magical being. The woman’s hair resembled woven gold, tightly braided to length, and slung over her shoulder. She wore the clothes of a rider… breeches, leather half-chaps encasing her lower legs, soldiers boots and a cotton tank top, all the shade of midnight. She bore the impressive muscle tone of her profession, and fair skin that didn’t seem to know war. 

What a big room and a thorough display of power for one woman. One had to wonder what exactly transpired to evoke such tension and so many uneasy glances. Like a finch in a safe, she stood seemingly unphased where the steps below the throne began. She resembled the marble figures… poised, beautiful, unafflicted. 

“I thought I was being quite clever.” 

Her moon colored eyes fixed themselves on her adversary, unwavering, unwilling to move. The hall resonated the spoken words, every breath was acknowledged by the desecrated hall. Her stillness was uncanny, her voice held no sentiment, but if you could only hear her blood. 

“Riddle me this, commander..” She ignored his request. “How would we assure each other of anything, given the circumstances.” This was not a question, but rather an observation about the imbalance of power between the two. There was no way either could be sure that the other would do as they said they would. Why sacrifice something with no guarantee that it would not be in vain? Her people had lost enough, meaninglessly.

Only allowing a small pause, she continued. “And surely, if you have taken something so sacred from me, what could you possibly want with my name?”


The Great Alchemist leaned back upon his throne, his clefted chin still tucked upon the meat of his palm. A steady visage betrayed no emotion upon hearing the snaps of the sorceress, with eyes that maintained their studious gaze. When she was finished, he allowed a lingering moment of quiet between them, preparing a response in his mind.

“My word is my bond, but I don’t expect you take that as face value.” Charles then leaned forward while clasping both hands and interlocking his fingers, discarding his prior nonchalance. “Your loved ones would be freed, and thus a means of correspondence subsequently established. In such manner they would be connected to you, and you to them.” An odd smile then curled into his cheek. “I assume you know them well enough to detect any forgeries, or sense any coercion.”

Did I just inadvertently plant a seed of distrust? The thought crossed the alchemist’s mind, but he wouldn’t dwell on his potential fault.

“There’s something else I’d like to share with you as well,” Charles continued. He was beginning to find the woman before him charming, in her own stalwart way. She didn’t fear him in the least, he sensed, and would accept death before any number of discourtesies. It was in his best interest, then, to keep her temperament as even-keel as possible, if he was to solve the mystery stewing within her.

“My scientists have continued to observe and analyze my… influence upon the world. There appears to be a consensus amongst their conclusions… magical abilities can be restored after their initial expulsion, albeit with the aid of a comprehensive, rehabilitative program.” An apprehensive murmur rose amongst the troops surrounding the sorceress, which was quickly dissipated with a piercing glare.

The Alchemist then stood from his throne and descended the series of stairs onto the wide scarlet rug, his steps controlled and composed. He would move to within a ruler’s length of the sorceress woman, his gaze firmly affixed upon her. 

“I’d like for you to be involved in such a program,” Charles stated, his voice a shade more subdued. “We can learn much with your cooperation, and your former abilities could be returned to you.”

Those large amber eyes kept on the woman, equally fierce and calculated. Somewhere within them, a spark of attraction may have been observed.

“Before that possibility, however…” Charles turned away, his arms folded behind his back, and walked toward the large, marbled sculpture of some ageless, nameless hero, riding a rearing horse with rapier in hand, stretching to the domed ceiling above. “Your name, my dear.” He pulled his eyes again onto the woman with a turn of his head, and smiled. “You may call me Charles, if you wish.”


The sorceress didn’t move. If the Alchemist was trying to provoke a response from her, he did nothing of the sort. It only provided him more stagnant context… a sweet vanilla scent, an incredibly warm pocket of air around her, and breath that was almost mechanical. She shamelessly observed, as if she had claim to the whereabouts of every bit of movement he made. No amount of subtlety in change went unnoticed. She expected less composure, less care, less carefully constructed behavior. Instead her enemy was a disciplined man, pulled into posture by his intention. Everyone had something admirable about them, at least.

A sea of considerations sorted themselves in the woman’s mind… potential consequences, actions and their mounted responses, what was to be gained. There was only one outcome that she was interested in, and like a good game of chess, there was no room to stumble.

To dwell too long on the question without answering would paint an air of ill confidence. Hesitation wasn’t an option.

She bought herself a few more brief moments of thought. “You seem like a Charles.”

She only had one blood relative. What else had he failed to know? Though nonetheless, her brothers at arms were as good as blood. She was the greatest defense they had against the conquest of the alchemist who now stood before her. Surely he didn’t intend to leave her unleashed, imbued with the force to topple his reign. 

She took a deep inhale, a breath that was just a few marks short of a sigh, and she let the heavy chains stack her shoulders down onto her frame as the breath flowed out. It was the most human thing she had done since being escorted before the Commander.

“Lyra is my name. Make good on your word, and I will humor your bullshit.”

Her eyes stayed right where he had left them, staring straight through him. She had questions, compartmentalizing and rearranging in her thoughts, but she couldn’t be certain they’d be answered at all, let alone truthfully. For now she would play the game, hold her tongue, and give him plenty of rope.


“Lyra.” The name was tasted on the alchemist’s tongue, and a look of satisfaction sifted to the surface of his face. He was finally making headway, it seemed, albeit grudgingly. Perhaps she was biding time to maximize the hand she held, but Charles would allow a certain amount of leeway and uncertainty towards accomplishing his ends. In the end, you’ll find my spread to be a royal flush, my dear.

“I imagine a bull is too common an animal for our purposes… dragonshit?” The joke didn’t land even with the soldiers around Lyra, but there was a good-natured smile spread across Charles’ lips. There was a brief moment before he pulled his gaze away from his new ‘acquaintance’… does she ever blink? he wondered to himself.

“You’ve had enough of me today, I’m sure,” the alchemist stated magnanimously, clapping his hands together as if to seal the matter. “Let’s reconvene tomorrow in our chief laboratory. No hands will be placed upon your body, that will be my promise to you. I would simply like the opportunity to utilize my alchemist’s eye… after all, our power stems itself from keen observation.” Another smile presented itself, this one a bit mischievous.

“Your relatives will be released immediately,” he declared reassuringly, and motioned to the lead soldier to relay the communication to the appropriate channels. “If there’s anything within reason that we can provide you to aid your sleep tonight, please do not hesitate to request it. I would like you well-rested for our get-together tomorrow.”

The alchemist then refocused his gaze to the statue before him, looking up towards the horse kicking its front legs ahead, casting a bluish shadow across his face. “A pleasant day for you, Lyra. We shall see each other tomorrow.”

With that, the soldiers escorted her out of the royal chambers, leaving Charles to his thoughts once more.

***

The young woman was escorted to The Great Alchemist’s chambers by three soldiers wearing olive green fatigues; a pair guarded her flanks while another trailed behind. Her skin was a rich flawless bronze, accentuating a callipygian figure which glowed through a translucent night gown, and sensuous silk clung against her curves. Her eyes were a burning sapphire, striking in their intensity, though they were now expressing a mixture of despondency and desperation. Occasional glances from those in her convoy seemed to flare with infatuation and jealousy.

They finally arrived at the tall, wooden slab door within Xarele’s former castle, where his royal quarters once-upon-a-time resided. The soldier to the left of the ravishing woman took the brass ring into his hand and firmly delivered a series of knocks. A few moments passed before a klik-klak was heard; the door slowly opened with groaning hinges until it was fully swung open, bringing with it the smell of incense and contours of candlelight. There stood the Great Alchemist, wearing an embellished maroon robe with a tasseled cincture the color of gold. A warm smile welcomed his guests, and his arms were stretched outward from his sides, palm open and welcoming.

“Good evening, my dear,” he stated with grateful cheer. His eyes settled upon the young woman’s sapphire orbs, and their gazes locked for a moment before the woman bit her lip and pulled hers away.

“Messiah,” she lifted from her lips, rather reluctantly. Her arms were now folded and hugging her sides in a guarded gesture.

“Come in, come in,” Charles invited with a gesture of his arm. “A pleasure for us to meet once again. Please, make yourself at home.”

There was a hesitancy before the women entered the beckoning confines with measured footsteps. Once she was fully inside, the Alchemist spoke a few hushed sentences to the waiting guards before they nodded their collective understanding, and departed back towards the main castle hall.

“Well then, Andrea,” Charles began through an exhale, his palms rubbing together as if eagerly waiting to descend upon a plate of food. A lingering glance upon the guest now locked within his bedroom elicited a laugh. “You needn’t have worn such an… exotic gown,” he stated alongside gaze that betrayed no seduction, at least not yet.

Andrea’s profile faced the Alchemist while she forced a nod of acknowledgment, before then sitting upon the foot of his bed. It was a spacious, canopied bed, with layers of silk blankets and curtains in shades of green and red, the colors of the Great Army. A wide, wooden headboard faced them with an artisan’s relief carving of three nearly identical, leering faces. 

Exquisite paintings on adjacent walls presented portraits of religious figures: Jesus the Man-God, a large-bellied, laughing Buddha, Zeus with thunderous eyes and a beard like flowing water… Several nameless figures with saintly robes rounded off the gallery, whose identities were perhaps known only to the Alchemist himself. A pair of black marble busts on columns flanking the doorway only pressed the point further. It was a crowded room, with watchful faces and peering eyes from all vantage points.

Andrea sat quietly, her eyes fixed upon the floor at Charles’ feet, until her gaze lifted to meet his. “I was thinking… perhaps this time we could instead…” Her hands rested upon her lap, thumb nestled within her palm, hopeful and tentative, tinged with creeping fear.

“You… were thinking.” The Alchemist’s voice considered the words with a sense of preparation and reluctance. “Thinking what?”

“That we could…  I could bear your children… as many as you desire…” Andrea’s right hand found itself within her jet black hair, twirling tendrils of hair absentmindedly.

“Bear… my children.” The disappointment was unmistakable now, and the Alchemist pursed his lips. He ambled towards the seated beauty, resting his palm against her elegant jawline, his eyes bearing an irrefutable message.

“I’ve nullified my own virility, my dear. Such is the sacrifice I’ve imposed upon myself to further my noble conquest.”

“Then I offer my body to do with as you please,” Andrea pleaded, her hands reaching for his robe’s cincture. “Any time… any thing you wish!”

“Andrea…” The Alchemist’s voice was firm and cold now, and his hand quickly clamped itself upon the bronze beauty’s attempts to find her way underneath his robe. “You know what I need.” 

“Please… my liege, my Messiah…”

“You. Know. What. I. Need.” Impatience now, and frigid determination.

The look of somber dejection descended upon Andrea’s face. With a shuddery sigh, she retracted her hands from the Alchemist’s waist and cupped them together, all while closing her eyes to recite a prayer. A lingering moment passed before a white flame came to life upon her pressed palms… flickering with the essence of magic… holy magic.

There we are…” The pleasantries had returned, as well as his smile. Charles reached underneath his robe and pulled out a small canvas bag, tied with a piece of twine. His index and middle fingers found their way within the bag, and revealed the coating of a sand-like substance upon his fingertips.

The fingertips then dangled themselves above the beating white flame. Andrea pulled her eyes away, not bearing to look, bracing herself with gritted teeth. 

Finally, the fingers pressed firmly onto the flame, extinguishing its life in an instant. A spasm of pain coursed across Andrea’s body, and her breath momentarily caught itself within her throat.

Antimanna… even the holiest magics cannot refute it.” The smile on Charles’ face was broad now, maniacal. He dipped his fingers into his canvas bag once more.

“Again,” her instructed. Andrea manifested another flame within her palms, which was promptly snuffed as before. Another convulsion, and a soft screech left Andrea’s lips. A tear was now trickling down her left eye.

“Again.”

“Again.”

“Again.”

By the time the Great Alchemist was satisfied, Andrea had collapsed on the bed behind her, twitching erratically. He looked upon his work with a sense of perverse pride, and then retired underneath his silk covers, drawing them over his guinea pig as well, and fell into a deep sleep.

***

Charles conferenced with his generals and advisors the following morning, seated at a large table in the war room that resided in the west wing of Xarele castle. He was the last to arrive and join the lively chatter about a variety of issues passed between a variety of temperaments, and often voices escalated to passionate exchanges.

“If it weren’t for your poorly trained men, we would have occupied the villages much earlier, and undercut the foothold of the resistance!”

“The Minister of Munitions is to blame for the campaign’s delay…”

“Get that cowardly rat out here, he has some damned explaining to do!”

“Gentlemen, please,” came the voice of the Great Alchemist as he sat upon a tall wooden chair, placing the bickering on an indefinite hold. “All things considered, we have established momentum towards our ultimate victory. Once my antimanna has been strategically dispersed, it will ensure our armies occupy the eastern territories and force the insurgents to surrender.”

“Not always,” came the voice of General Rolander, seated almost directly across the other side of the room.

Charles’ eyes narrowed slightly before leaned forward to interlock his hands and rest them on the table. “What news have you, General?” he inquired with equal amounts of interest and concern.

“More reports of incidents with black mages developing some sort of immunity,” the general stated.  “Sporadic, but altogether too common for comfort. One village managed to drive back a platoon with calculated attacks, despite our miracle drug.”

“Drive back, you say?” Charles’ voice teetered on agitation, but he reigned it in well enough. Not waiting for Rolander to continue, he spoke to a plan of action. “This won’t do, this won’t do… we must study Lyra as thoroughly as possible, before this gets of hand.”

“Lyra?” Rolander’s question was answered by another nearby general. “The unstable sorceress we have imprisoned.”

“Truly?” Rolander leaned back into his chair and chewed on a thought. “She’ll hand you your own entrails given the first chance, sir. I would suggest conducting your observations from afar. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and…”

“I need to see it for myself,” Charles stated to aloud, talking to himself. “I need to see her explode before my very eyes.” Before the generals could intervene, he excused himself from the war room, making his way to the chief laboratory.

***

Lyra was waiting as expected in the testing yard of the chief laboratory, bordered by stone walls beset with tall windows of reinforced iron and glass. Spread across the yard were hanging industrial hooks, dummy mannequins made of straw and canvas, several brick walls with impact scars, and other instruments meant to assist with a variety of demonstrations. The ground was a finely manicured grass, and a windowed dome could be seen above, supported by interlocking steel girders and a staircase originating from outside the yard. 

The crisp air of morning flowed freely throughout the yard, and beams of sunlight cast harsh, blue shadows in grid-like patterns from above. Hazed silhouettes could be seen in the overhead dome, occasionally moving to and fro, but mostly peering down upon the sorceress below them. The sound of methodical footsteps climbing the staircase towards the dome broke the morning’s serenity… crunk, crunk, crunk.

“What news, gentlemen?” Charles finally joined the small group of scientists in the observation dome, with lab coats and notebooks spread across a number of small tables.

“Just keeping a close eye on our sorceress,” came the report of the chief scientist Doctor Henley, a short, stout, serious man with a thin beard and spectacles.

“A close eye,” Charles repeated, mulling on the words. He took a lingering look towards Lyra below through a curved window, before turning to address Henley again. “Has she been provoked?”

“Provoked?” Henley seemed genuinely surprised at the inquiry. “Her outbursts don’t seem to be correlated with aggressive stimuli… we’ve found that she’s more likely to—“

“Perhaps not the right kind of stimuli,” Charles interrupted, his voice contemplative. “Let’s see if I’m able to pull her out of her latency.”

“Sir… what?” Henley looked upon the Great Alchemist, stunned at his suggestion. Glances were exchanged between the scientists before Charles settled upon his own perceptions with a firm nod. “Keep a close eye, good fellows, and your notebooks handy. We shall see if Lyra’s eruptions respond to an ideal opportunity.”

“Great Alchemist… I highly recommend against such a dangerous approach—” 

“I’m sure you do,” Charles acknowledged while returning towards the staircase platform. “But my life, and perhaps death, shall serve the greater good.” The sound of  descending steps then reverberated across the dome. Crunk, crunk, crunk.

***

Lyra would hear an iron door open with hinges moaning their dismay. Within the doorframe stood the Great Alchemist, with his pretentiously humble attire. 

“Good morning, dear Lyra,” he stated pleasantly. “I’m here for you to kill me.”

Charles wouldn’t wait for a response from the sorceress and instead stepped out into the yard, approaching a crumbling brick fixture a few yards away.

“Here’s your chance,” Charles explained, his voice now “Muster what powers you have left bubbling inside you, despite our best efforts to snuff it out. Strike me down and end a war, for magic’s sake.” His arms were outstretched and welcoming, and a strange smile lifted upon his face.

___

“A fool?” Charles seemed perplexed at the words as he repeated them. His arms still hung outward, bearing their sinister greeting.

“You would consider it a fool’s errand to end the life of your greatest enemy?” He posed the question with a slight tilt of his head. “You were rather curt with me yesterday in the castle hall… but perhaps your manner of speaking doesn’t reflect the nature of your fighting instincts.” A tinge of mockery colored this outward reflection.

“Very well then,” he settled upon aloud with a sigh. “I rescind your brother’s freedom.”

Charles smiled at Lyra’s response, despite himself. He let he arms hang down against his sides, and his hands found their way into his pant pockets.

“You don’t believe me… put another way, you trust me.” His smile grew wider, and he rocked back a bit on his heels. 

“I’m flattered that you’ve taken me as honorable,” he continued, his eyes affixed upon the golden-haired woman seated upon the cool grass. “And an honorable man I am. However, my curiosity has shifted towards another question… do you hate me?” He presented the question with a look a genuine curiosity.

____

The Alchemist’s eyes studied Lyra closely. Her keen recognitions had dampened his initial strategy, but perhaps there was another approach.

“I may lack the leverage to rise you to anger… but perhaps you’d be motivated towards a mercy killing.”

Following his strange suggestion, Charles lifted his shirt and maneuvered his oblique towards Lyra’s line of sight. A thick, web-like scar could be seen traveling up from his waist towards the small of his back.

“This scar,” Charles explained, “I received from a sorcerer’s spell many years ago, when the Red Mage’s Order pushed outward to claim the western kingdoms. My mother was a healer and my father a guider of earth… I was born mute, and though they were as supportive as parents could be, I always sensed their quiet disappointment.” 

“I suppose my… impediment forced me to discover my own ways of being… useful to the world. I spent many days and nights in my cramped basement laboratory, feigning myself as mute of mind as well as magic. I found work as a groundsman at a temple… a perfect cover.” A soft smile pulled across the Alchemist’s lips. “I made humble acquaintances with several prominent mages… if only they knew what stewed at night beneath their feet.”

“It took me four years… though thinking back, they felt like four decades. And finally, with luck and determination, I discovered antimanna.”

“From there, after many discreet meetings with the floundering mute resistance, I earned my loyal following. Momentum continued to build. I remember our first victory like it was yesterday… we had raided a village for supplies. A little firedrake boy lifted his hands toward me, expecting his spell to stop me in my tracks… the look of horror on his face as he gawked upon his useless palms was… enlightening.” There was no glee on the Alchemist’s face, however, only heartfelt recollection.

“From there, every person freed from the curse of magic lifts my spirits higher. My parents, upon seeing their mute boy’s weaponized obsession, actually joined the Red Mages against me. I could not fight against them myself, but…” The Alchemist’s voice trailed, but the implication was there, just the same.

And I must say… my obsession has affected me in ways even I couldn’t have foreseen.” The Alchemist’s sigh was heavy with regret.

“There is a woman who sees me almost every night… her name is Andrea… she is quite beautiful… stunningly so. We’ve never made love.” The curious detail seemed to take on a dour emphasis.

“She was once a master of white magic before she was captured, a year or so ago. Antimanna has all but extinguished her abilities… but a kernel stubbornly remains. A kernel which I insist on snuffing out repeatedly. Over and over and over. Her pain and discomfort is incidental to me.”  There was another sigh, this one tempered with grim acceptance.

“So you see,” Charles continued was walking with measured steps towards Lyra, “my obsession has progressed into sickness. It consumes me as much as it drives me, showing little remorse in its wake.” He sat a feet few away from Lyra, cross-legged and calm, and locked his gaze upon her.

“For the firedrake boy… my parents… poor Andrea…” His lips pursed. “Pull your magic up from your core, and strike me down.”

____

The look in the Alchemist’s eyes wavered between confidence and disappointment. He sensed something stewing within Lyra, something potent, but the placidity on her face refused to betray any internal workings, and doubt settled again within his mind like dust. If only he’d have spotted the stewpot beneath the woman’s fingers on the grass, he might have pressed… pressed hard. But his gaze never wavered, never surrendered.

“If I had been… blessed with magic…” The way Charles said blessed, it might as well have been cursed. “I know not the course my life would have taken. Perhaps I would have joined the Red Mage’s Order, the same group of magic wielders which–“

“Commander,” came the voice of a shadowed soldier with the nearby iron door. “My apologies for interrupting, but I’m here to report.”

Charles pulled an impatient smile across his face, his eyes still trained on Lyra. “Speak,” he beckoned with an stiff exhale.

“The generals have convened again,” the soldier continued, “as there have been… developments on the battlefront.”

“Developments?” Charles’ voice was colored with curiosity, but a wave of his hand put the soldier’s explanation on hold. “I’ll wait to hear them from the horses mouths. Arrange an escort immediately. I’ll be there shortly.”

The soldier saluted at the Alchemist’s order before his boots marched away.

The Alchemist’s focus shifted towards Lyra once more. His smile had shifted towards embarrassment. 

“You’ll be happy to know,” Charles began with a sigh, “that my armies have encountered more and more… hindrances during my conquest as of late. Our advances have been stifled across a number of fronts.” His teeth grinded in apparent regret before his brow furrowed, perhaps to entertain a fresh thought in his mind.

“If you’d care to participate,” the Alchemist posed with a lack of expectation, “I’d be happy to invite you along to my pending conference with the generals who push my grand vision outward. You can smirk and laugh at our deliberations, and speak as freely as you wish.” 

Charles then offered a strange wink towards Lyra, as if a secret had been sealed between the pair. “Just save your scathing remarks until after I’ve been briefed of the situation. There will be plenty of time for them, I can assure you.”


Lyra let her hold on the heat slip away. She quit feeding it, and so as was its nature, it left her control. The heat would now dissipate and feed the grass. 

She listened keenly, her eyes granting the alchemist her full attention. She had an innate respect for peoples inner thoughts, and gave him the silence to dwell. She liked how peoples voices changed and softened when they dug deep, and looked inward. In this case, she was less empathetic and more invasive, but the same sentiment existed.

She tilted her head, withdrawing her hand from the grass and looking into her hand. “If nothing else, I might be entertained.” She stood. Her hair charismatically spilled, lacing and cloaking all over her shoulders and down to her hips. It was laying about in the disciplined waves of a tight braid, undone. Some edge that had been there yesterday… perhaps even lingering around just minutes before, was now passivized. A cocky carelessness dressed her in soft lines. 

“It’s funny you think I might have kept my mouth shut without your say.” She smirked, let the corner of her mouth drop and winked back at Charles.


To Kill A Demon

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


The basement of the tavern was more plush than Una had been expecting. She arrived early, cautious as ever, and given the pass phrase to the bartender who’d showed her to room – three chairs, two on one side of a large wooden desk, facing another. Instead of large shelves of wine and barrels, the room was lined with bookshelves filled with oddities. Una had spent a few minutes examining them, fingers wrapping around the strap of the satchel she carried. 

Her quarry was inside: four pendants, all won through blood and sweat and tears. The last demon she’d slain for her efforts had left three deep cuts over her shoulder and down her chest, peaking from beneath the shirt and leather corset she wore. Three clean black lines, denoting the colour of her blood beneath her pale skin; the same colour as the eyes that had moved over the skulls and vials, statues and urns on the shelves. Books in languages she didn’t recognise. 

Whoever had hired her clearly didn’t deal in the goods she was usually sent to recover.

After a short while, Una had taken to lounging in one of the two chairs, twirling a strand of crimson hair between her fingers. It was natural, and marked another strange thing about her; sleek and shiny and curled, as red as dried blood. The same colour as her father’s, who she’d only met once in her life. 

The last remarkable point of her appearance was the spiked, barbed tail that wound its way over the arm of the chair and twitched like a cat’s while she waited for her employer to show. There had been promise of a payout, greater than any she’d ever received, after one final task – given the four quests she’d just embarked on, she wasn’t expecting a walk in the park. But at least she was getting paid.


Alex’s boots were caked with the weight of dried mud, and blackened blood was smeared across the thighs of his padded leggings. His right arm was in a sling, and his left carried the weight of thin armor plates slung over his shoulder, tightly wound and encased within a fisherman’s net. The plates made a rhythmic click, clack, click sound as he walked, forfeiting any chance of stealth as he trudged towards the Inn and Din tavern, but he wasn’t in any current danger. A blue, button-down shirt with various tear marks announced his survival of the last real danger he had encountered.

The rambunctious tavern was alive for the early night, with a drunk piano player pounding out clumsy tunes as a crowd danced and cheered around him. A shadowy pair of figures towards the back wall were playing darts, and a few other cloaked mysteries sat silently at the long bar table. After a brief scan of the goings-on, Alex sat himself at the bar seat closest to the entrance, placing his armored haul down on the floor beside him with a clattering thunk.

The bartender eventually approached the new arrival with an expectant look on his face, but was dismissed with the wave of a hand.

“Drink first,” Alex explained. “Then I’ll go.”

The bartender nodded his understanding (who was he to argue?) and reached for the usual bottles from the shelves behind him. It was obvious that Alex was a regular. He was already late for the arranged meeting, but he figured his employer could endure his tardiness a little longer. He was, after all, in possession of a seemingly timeless bounty, far beyond priceless. But sadly, time wasn’t an accepted currency in the vast world of Iscaroth.

When the bartender presented Alex with his drink, he’d find a large gold coin accompanying the anticipated pieces of silver.

“Reserve a room for the demon woman and I,” the arm-slung warrior requested.

“Yessir,” the bartender acknowledged. “What size bed would ye be likin’ for the pair of–“

Beds,” Alex corrected. “Plural. Any size is fine.”

The bartender nodded before taking the money on the table, wrote a note in his log book, and moved to serve the call of another customer.

Shortly before his drink was finished, a group of brutes pushed through the tavern’s batwing doors. They were of various heights and races, but each shared the same dubious intentions. Their collective scan of the room seemed to size everyone up, and even the piano player stopped briefly in a bout of alarm before tending to another song request.

Normally, Alex wouldn’t have given two yoks about the arrival of the soon-to-be troublemakers, but he sensed an all-too-familiar energy swirling around them… demonic energy. His cool, olive green eyes kept a close eye as they moved towards the back of the tavern, past the piano’s audience and towards the dining area.

Eventually, their intentions settled upon a lone woman at a table, sipping a cup of tea. The brutes crowded her with strategic placement to prevent an easy escape.

“Well howdy, missus,” came the grumbled greeting of a tall, ox-like beast with wide eyes and broad arms, draped in alligator skins. “Whut’re yeh doin’ all alone here in–“

Leave me be,” the woman curtly advised. She was a visual firebrand, with her leather armor, short hair and piercing gaze, but the mixture of fear in her voice was obvious to Alex.

“Aww, c’mooooon,” the ox-thing continued without hesitation. “Ye have them lonely eyes, see? Ah bet I could take yen upstairs and–“

The woman abruptly jumped to her feet and met the ox-thing eye-to-eye with a bend of her neck, but a large hand from behind seized her shoulder and forced her back in her seat.

“Sit back down,” an armored, boar-like creature insisted. “We’re just tryin’ to have a little–“

“She said to leave her alone,” Alex interrupted with his sword drawn toward the ox-beast. The four pairs of eyes were immediately drawn to the one-armed warrior who somehow sneaked up on them, and they collectively snorted their displeasures.

“Yeh know this lady?” the ox-beast asked.

“No,” Alex replied.

The four brutes titled their heads alongside an unspoken question: Then why risk your life?

“Yeh think yeh can handle the lot of us? With that broken arm of yours?” The question from the boar-thing was a genuine one, holding no mockery whatsoever.

The pair of stern green eyes passed their wordless answer. Try me.

There was a moment’s standoff before the initial move was made. A twin-like pair of snarling, bipedal ermines took their swipes, which were easily dodged with a swift lunge between them. The ox-thing was already bearing down like a sledgehammer upon Alex with its clamped hands, and the impact on the tavern floor erupted a barrage of wooden planks and splintered shards. When the dust eventually settled, there was no body to be seen, spurring the ox-thing into a frenzied search around the tavern. 

By the time it looked up towards the rafters, it was too late. Alex was dangling with his one good arm, blade in teeth, his legs cocked back before landing a fierce blow against the ox-beast’s temple. It staggered back against the nearby tavern wall before a sword was impaled through its shoulder before there was any chance to regroup. The beast roared in agony as Alex leaned in close to his mark and spoke through gritted teeth.

“If I ever see you in this place again,” he warned through wafts of hot breath, “I will sever each of your heads. Understood?”

The ox-beast nodded as it gurgled and wheezed, pinned helplessly against the wall behind it. Its three companions had already fled through the tavern door from whence they entered, leaving it alone to endure the brunt of  Alex’s wrath. Without hesitation, he yanked his sword out of the flesh from which it was lodged, prompting another bellow from the ox-beast. It took a few moments to collect its bearings before stumbling away, hand pressed against the wound in its shoulder, snarling its dismay.

The short-haired woman offered a brief nod to her defender. Alex politely returned the gesture. No thank you needed, were the words spoken through his gaze.

After the skirmish concluded, the arm-slung warrior returned to his seat and beckoned the bartender with a wave. He arrived with a visibly hesitant swallow down his throat and waited for instructions. Alex took a breath before reciting the appropriate words.

Inn and Din, Wallow in Sin Where the Air is Thin.

The gaunt bartender in blue overalls then led Alex to the room where Una and his benefactor were most certainly waiting.

____

The familiar pulse of lust rose and fell within Alex when he was reunited with Una. It was a reflex he had tempered to a barely noticeable hesitation, though the look in his eyes must have betrayed his impassive front on some level. 

Una would recognize the olive green gaze, wavy black hair, and soft ochre skin of her tentative partner as he dropped his armored load near the room’s doorframe. A faded scar traveled from his temple and across his right cheek, and the bridge of his nose forked into a pair of bladed eyebrows. Despite his weathered visage, maidens had occasionally shown interest in the battle-worn hellhunter, though as of yet none had fancied him beyond a casual roll in the hay.

There was also a cloaked individual whose face hidden in shadow, obviously the benefactor. The air in the book-filled hideaway was heavy with impatience.

“Sorry I’m late,” Alex offered with a rather unapologetic tone. “I was held up.” He then tossed a bag onto the wooden desk, where a metallic pendant would peek out and unabashedly announce its authenticity.

“All eight pendants are here,” Alex confirmed while folding his good arm across his chest. “What’s next?”


“Alex,” Una greeted. She watched as he slung his pendants on the table, heard the clink of the quarry inside as it bumped against her own satchel sat neatly on the desk. Eyebrows raised, she ran her eyes over him with a small smile. “Was that you I heard causing trouble upstairs, as usual?” she asked, her tongue and lips curling around her accent, all soft and musical syllables. 

“I was just regaling our benefactor with tales of my exploits, though it seems you’ve come out rather worse for wear,” Una said, turning her gaze to the shadowed figure. “How’s the arm?”


“It bends,” Alex remarked with a brief glance at his sling. With pain, was the implicit, unspoken rider. There was an effort to shrug his shoulder, but a sharp sting nipped his attempt at levity in the bud.

He left Una’s comment regarding his skirmish alone and instead began to dwell his mind upon what lay ahead. The truth was that he was indeed worse for wear, and a glance upon Una’s own gouges suggested she was somewhere near the same level of exhaustion. A cleric would help speed their recoveries along, but they were expensive… not to mention elusive, due to their collective exodus from the borderlands after the Thankosan revolution. The odds seemed to stack themselves by the day, but he and Una had made this far, despite—

“At any rate,” Alex said aloud, interrupting his own runaway train of thought. “Everything is here for us to make our final move. Once the final beast is slain, we will be promptly compensated, yes?” To Alex, it felt good to say the words aloud, since he had already spent most of his advance towards the simple necessity of staying alive.

He wouldn’t wait for the mystery man’s answer before walking past the seated Una with an accidental brush against her restless tail, towards the table of treasures. He snatched a pendant into his hand and studied it quietly before lifting his eyes back towards the cloaked wonder.

“Tell us more about this Christ of Demons,” Alex said with a curious curl of a smile.


Sarcastic, straight to the point, and subtle as ever – Alex was exactly as Una had remembered. His comment about his bending arm had her lips twisting into a smile, the small scar that stretched from the left corner to just below her eye pinching with the movement. The half-demon usually preferred more tactful methods, but she did admire his somewhat brutal efficiency. Especially as he enquired about payment. 

Her dark eyes slid from him to their benefactor at the question. 

“Why, of course. You’ve been worth your fee thus far, and provided you continue to impress my client, you shall be rewarded as swift as we are able – once the final task is complete, of course.” The voice that slithered from beneath the hood was distinctly male, but not precisely human. Something in the elongated vowels and the drag of the soft consonants lingered in Una’s mind as she watched him with a shrewd gaze. 

Alex passing her, and brushing her tail which twitched with the touch, had her attention drawn back to him. Assessing his gait, his expression – was the arm the worst of his injuries? Or a pretty distraction for something more damaging? It was impossible for her to gauge, making her consider other methods of assessing his current physical state. 

“The Christ of Demons will prove a far more formidable foe than those you’ve just faced. His influence has leaked into these lands for far longer than my client ever wished to permit – suffice to say his removal will provide far more benefits to you both than just money.” The shadowed figure extended a cloaked arm, blackened nails belonging to slender, pale fingers peaking from beneath the dark robe. Directing Alex to the other seat. “You will need to prepare well; supplies, of course, will be compensated. But his domicile will have challenges extending beyond the physical. I would advise you both to insure that you are at the peak of physical and mental wellness before entering his home.” 

Once the other adventurer was seated, the cloaked figure would produce a scroll from within the folds of his robe, and extend it between them. It’s appearance had Una sitting forward a little. 

“A map of the Northern Territories, with the Demon Lord’s castle defined for ease of location,” the figure said. “A journal will be delivered here tomorrow morning, detailing as much information as is available about the castle itself. The defences are… unique, to say the least. I would wager unlike anything either of you have experienced before.”

Una felt a familiar chill run down her spine: something new. Something strange and unusual, a puzzle begging to be solved. The money was what had drawn her to this task, but it was the promise of adventure that had sealed the deal. And so far, this figure and his master had provided far beyond what she had been expecting.


The pendant kept silent as Alex’s good hand fondled it absentmindedly, as a fevered fledgling might fondle his first breast. He sat intently while his eyes were affixed on the cloaked mystery thing and his… its?… ominous briefing. His spiritual senses had sharpened over the course of his battles, and he felt something there… not demonic, but perhaps something even worse…. no, not worse. Something beyond.

Once offered with the scroll, Alex twirled the pendant’s chain around his forearm, the metallic stone tautly pressed against his wrist as he accepted it. He gave it a cursory glance before passing it to Una for her own inspections. The outlook seemed precarious, as it always did, but he had faced long odds before, with his die or get paid attitude carrying him much farther than a flimsy creed should. 

A visit to the local shaman might prove beneficial, though their blessings and wares frequently amounted to little more than snake oil… but there had been pecks of useful insight, and a small vial of what was advertised to be Wonder Juice once supplied him with a burst of energy to swing his sword true, when he was near the proverbial end of his rope. In the absence of a cleric, it might be he and Una’s only option to pad their cuts and bruises. His stubborn arm was another matter to be considered with a less exhausted mind.

His removal will provide far more benefits to you both than just money… the words hung precariously in Alex’s mind, begging to be scrutinized. In actuality, Alex really hadn’t considered the widespread ramifications of his admittedly financially-driven crusade. He had simply been too focused on the endgame, too busy to look at the big picture. His sporadic bouts of objectivity had almost convinced him that the demon lords were less intent on malice and more intent on indulgence. Keep the common folk feeding, fighting, snorting, and fornicating, he had heard one candid politician say. There were celebrations after word had spread of his triumphs, but the plateau of mankind’s morality held steady, and in fact seemed to compensate for the felled demons. We can be evil, with or without the reigns of demon lords, rose the apparent sentiment of the masses.

“We’ll stay here tonight,” Alex announced to the cloaked something-or-other with a glance towards Una. “Study this more closely as we await your journal. Discuss strategies and options, and conduct an honest analysis of our current physical states. We’ll run an errand or two in the early morning and meet here when the tavern opens, as the sun frees itself from the horizon. How does that suit you, mystery man?”


Una caught the scroll between two fingers, unrolling the crackling paper as she listened to the figure speak. It was a standard map, nothing fancy; the Demon Lord’s home highlighted as he’d described. Right in the middle of The Forest of Dornath. 

The end of her tail curled as she stared at it memories from long ago dancing through her mind. An old scar along her thigh gave a foreboding tingle. She made mental notes of exactly what kinds of weapons and poisons and wards she would need to bring, as she rolled the map up and balanced it on her leg. 

Her dark eyes flicked to Alex as he spoke again, letting the cloak figure’s words settle in her mind. Her partner was more talkative, it seemed, and she was happy to sit back and listen. To analyse and think through the information. 

We’ll stay here tonight.” 

Her lips quirked, eyebrows raising in silent question. Will we now?

“I’m afraid I will be leaving town after this meeting has reached its conclusion,” the figure replied, hands retreating back beneath its shadowed sleeves. “The journal will be delivered to the bar – just give the phrase and it will be handed to you.”

The thing stood, a smile on the lips visible beneath the hood. “Should you be successful, our paths shan’t cross again. Your payment shall be delivered when you’re finished. Leave any expenses with the bar when you collect the journal.”

Una spared another glance at Alex before standing, taking the scroll to place in her satchel on the desk. It seemed the meeting was over. 

“If that’s all, I think it would be best we get a head start on preparations,” she said, voice smooth and polite as she spoke. She turned to Alex as she scooped his medallions back into his bag and passed them to him, ignoring the way the metal seemed to heat against her skin. “Unless you’ve further questions?”


A determined horse’s hooves trotted awkwardly up the dense thicket to the edge of Murtham cliff, finding themselves on the overlook with some effort. There could be seen the wide bowl of Murth Canyon, stretching its rugged magnificence past the horizon. The fading glow of dusk could be seen above its broad cup, with the silhouette of another horseman pressed against the remaining light, waiting still and patient.

“Commander,” came the greeting of Lieutenant Netley towards his expected contact. A moment of observation revealed a fresh facial wound upon his superior in the moonlight, and his sense of dutiful restraint abandoned him.

“Sir, what in god’s name happened to your face?”

There was a pull of breath before he spoke. “An overzealous scout,” the Commander explained, his eyes still affixed towards the fading distance. “He had his chance from his hidey-hole and marked my face, but missed my life.” A moment’s reflection drew out an obvious observation. “They’re out there, and they know we’re here,” came the sobered declaration.

Netley’s head hung a bit before speaking again. “The troops have been prepared,” he said with unmistakably forced confidence. “Armed and ready for your orders.”

The Commander seemed to ignore the report entirely with a gaze from another place, but then words lifted themselves from his lips.

“Netley, what was the joke you told at the bonfire from three night’s prior?”

Netley’s brow furrowed with uncertainty. “Sir… ?” A moment’s thought then settled upon the memory, prompting a slow enunciation.

“In between a harlot’s legs lies the sweetest succor, but a look upon her morning face and you’ll wish you hadn’t fucked’er.”

The Commander smirked at the retelling, then settled back into his somber mood. “That will most certainly our battle against the Njorks,” he mused aloud. “Sweet to fight, with our regrets in death.”

Netley said nothing in response. A few more moments of heavy silence held themselves in the air, before the Commander kicked his horse into motion.

“We charge at dawn,” Alex said solemnly as he passed his Lieutenant.

____

It was that inner Commander that rose within Alex when he told the cloaked wonder about his… their… plans. The impulse rose less frequently now, but an officer’s habits died hard, especially when there were preparations involved. He had controlled most aspects of his former battalion’s lives… from when they slept, what they ate, where they charged… how they died. And now, he had to be careful. Una certainly exhibited certain categorical aspects of a soldier,  but she wasn’t his soldier.

Alex didn’t have to look at Una to see her hesitation. He sensed it, but nevertheless felt no regrets. With the obvious caveat, of course: she could simply reject his order… his suggestion… without fear of reprisal.

Should you be successful, our paths shan’t cross again. Mr. Cloak had said those words before he departed, but they meant little in the mind of Alex. He had long ago settled on the fact that all walls have eyes, and his newfound spiritual mastery kept him keen on the involvement of their benefactor. A presence always lingered around him, during his travels and battles… the presence, it seemed to be… watching with its unrelenting gaze. The book-laden room he and Una were in did not hold itself as an exception. To Alex, Mr. Cloak’s aura persisted like a bad odor.

Alex shook his head at Una’s question before addressing the elephant between them. “I reserved us a room,” he said with a shade of reluctance. “I know our battles have to this point been fought separately, but our journeys merge from this point forward. It would be wise to build a little camaraderie to prepare us for the challenges that lay ahead.”

Alex spoke with a rational air, but his reasoning pulsed from past memories of jokes told across bonfires…

“At the very least, let’s conduct our preparations there,” he added to ease any misgivings. “This room gives me the shudders.”

__

There was the golden-haired maiden who clenched him tightly as she panted against his ear, but that was so long ago, and the memory’s sensuous comforts had dimmed. Now there was Una, though his mind often rejected her tempting potentialities… but tonight was different. Tonight she was close.

The lusty tide rose again, and an almost uncontrollable urge to reach for his roommate, even with the realization that she might accept his advance, or she might drive a dagger into his heart. Nevertheless, the pine was there, and it would shudder across his limbs towards fidgeting fingertips.

“UuuhhAAAOOWWW,” came the grunt of pain from his lips as he unconsciously shifted in response to his mental whims. Pain had always grounded him, kept his mind sharp and focused. His sharp wince eventually subsided, and he was thankful for the stack of armor masking the excitement below his waist.

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. 

“THEY DON’T KNOW!” Charles begged through the pain. “MY SUPERIORS KNOW NOTHING! SHE TOLD ME, THEY ONLY KNOW OF A REFUGEE, NOTHING ELSE!”

“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.

A sharp radio crackle broke the silence which had nestled itself within the ship. “ATTENTION. UNAUTHORIZED VESSEL APPROACH FROM SECTOR 6YU-3Z. IDENTIFY YOURSELF OR BE DESTROYED. REPEAT. IDENTIFY YOURSELF OR BE DESTROYED.”

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…

LEAVE.

ME.

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?”

Liquid Evolution – 01

■ My submissions  

■ Partner’s submissions


The pewter-colored dropcraft, lodged in reddish mud, shifted a bit before its door slid open like an eyelid. From the round ship emerged six soldiers, wearing thin black jumpsuits with matching boots and gloves, right arms extended forward from their chest towards any potential threats. They quickly dispersed in different directions, covering vasts amounts of ground in seconds. Rain fell down as thick aqueous bulbs upon the saturated Martian soil, complementing a purplish-gray sky with a thin strip of orange towards the horizon, beyond the sharp ridges of geologic formations. 

Charles Brock, by contrast, emerged from the craft slowly, swiveling his head to-and-fro to note his surroundings. He wore the same jet-black uniform as the soldiers that preceded him, with one difference: the red emblem of an eagle representing the Bloodhawks could be seen on either shoulder, announcing his rank as Lieutenant Commander.

The Bloodhawks were the military branch assigned to Earth’s Science and Technology Institute, mobilized for reconnaissance and sample collections in potentially dangerous regions. Of course, as was the case with Earth’s primary defense organizations, they were regularly utilized for discreet and crucial missions. They recited the same ethical oaths as their civilian counterparts, but sometimes their promises were bent and broken against the insurgents who scattered themselves across the terraformed planets within the solar system.

It was an exciting time in Brock’s life; as exciting as life could get for an enlisted grunt soldier, anyway. He earned an officer’s promotion years ahead of schedule due to exemplary performance, which offered him more downtime as well as his own private quarters, small but comfy with a telescreen and other details towards ease of life. He was also eligible to claim a sexual partner (one at a time at his current rank) at the Mate Exchange during downtime. The sexual act has always intrigued Charles, since he was still a virgin (most soldiers were due to the necessary dedication and location-specific training required for enlistment), but ESATI had arranged to temper his curiosity on the subject.

Earth scientists had discovered and experimented with a substance named Liquid Evolution. When applied to the human genome, many biological handicaps were erased or substantially diminished. A trained soldier could go up to eight hours or more without taking a breath to oxygenate his blood. Strength and senses were heightened, with bone density increasing by almost five hundred percent due to the manifestation of a strange fibrous membrane. The scientists realized through their observations that they were watching evolution accelerate before their very eyes.

Another interesting and unanticipated effect was the impact on primal genetic impulses. The pleasure threshold of the human orgasm was magnified exponentially, calculated at around ten times the dopamine triggering capabilities of concentrated opiates. Sexually active recipients of LE recorded momentary visitations to new planes of existence, melting sensations as if they were merging into one being with their partner, and other curious phenomena upon climax…

One would think this development would devolve human beings into sex-crazed beasts, but science was always one step ahead. Brain implants would dampen cravings for sexual release, activated only by an electronic pulse delivered by a specialized doctor. Essentially, they served the purpose of an on/off switch for the libido. This ensured focused and obedient soldiers in the field. 

These soldiers often patrolled the abundance of planets in the solar system, existing now thanks to massive technological efforts. Beyond terraforming existing celestial bodies, planets were built from space matter and positioned for perfect rotation around with sun with powerful laser-based instruments. Most were around the size of Earth’s moon; some quite a bit larger, others slightly smaller. A few hundred or more were distributed in varying distances from the sun, with near-perfect atmospheric conditions for human life, in perfect harmony with the life-giving ball of fire in the sky. Colonies had begun to develop and flourish…

…until a decision was reached by the Chief Council with a majority vote. A mandate was declared that all humans originating from Earth be administered Liquid Evolution for their immediate benefit. The observed advantages were obvious; longer life spans, less susceptibility to disease, and the neutralization of mental illnesses.

There were rebellions, of course. Rumors of rare but horrific side effects resulting from LE exposure spread fear quickly. Others were simply weary of any government-sponsored requirements. The blanketing efforts of propaganda to instill reassurance throughout Earth and its colonies had only so much sway. Militias and guerrilla forces organized themselves, and soon a charismatic leader named Ian Fenwick condemned the Earth’s efforts towards dogmatic conquest. The war against Liquid Evolution had begun.

_____

Charles waited for his squadron to make their rounds as he recorded the terrain around him with his datascope. The crackle of audiofeed from his thin plastic helmet contrasted the plip-plop-plips of thick rain with periodic bursts of coordinate confirmations and reports. The seven soldiers were dispatched to investigate heat signatures leaving the Martian atmosphere from this particular sector. Since the culprits were likely pod ships having already made their escape, no significant findings were expected. 

Once the sweep was complete, the auxiliary objective was to take topographical surveillance scans since the sector was initially thought abandoned. Any unexpected human encounters were to be revolved according to the Commander’s discretion… he could simply pretend they didn’t exist, or apprehend them and decide their fate back at headquarters.

Sweeps usually took an hour or more, so Charles took to entertaining himself with his pulse modulators as he waited for his squadron to return. Taking aim at a large nearby rock, he extended his arm and directed his palm towards it, fingers outstretched. With a vsspt sound and a bright cyan burst, the antigravity mechanism activated, lifting the rock into the air. His arm experienced a slight strain before it steadied itself, raising the rock upward until it blocked out the faint visage of sun in the rain-drenched sky.

His visor scans measured the rock’s weight at almost a ton. Though he was accustomed by now to his equipment, he always marveled at the modulators which graced either of his gloves. Warfare had certainly come a long way since a decade before, with more humane and conscientious advancements. There was no longer a need for bullets; modulation pulses could stop an insurgent (or group of insurgents) in their tracks with half an effort, freezing them in place until they were fully disarmed. Many insurgents lives were spared when they would have been annihilated with other weapons, but the pulse modulators still had the capacity for violence. With a squeeze of the hand, an unlucky person would be crushed into a pretzel.

With a flick of his wrist, Charles tossed the rock to his left towards a large crater’s edge, some fifty yards away. It came down with an almost sickening thud upon the soaked Martian soil, rolling until it disappeared over the basin’s lip. He smiled at his own juvenile methods of amusement, until a stark red message abruptly appeared on his visor’s readings. TOPOGRAPHIC ABNORMALITY DETECTED.

Charles raised a brow and made his way towards the edge of the crater. A large pool of water had collected at its base, dancing frenetically with the rain. He panned his eyes around the crater’s bowl until a discovery was made; what looked like a cave had been exposed by a dislodged rock, seemingly placed there for camouflage. Aha, Charles thought to himself. Looks like me goofing off has its benefits after all.

After a careful approach with a steadied arm, he pulled the rock fully free to expose the entirety of the cave’s entrance. What he saw inside amazed him; empty ration containers stacked neatly and an old pair of discarded slippers, before the tunnel bled into the dark unknown. Someone had obviously lived here, or was living here. He dug his boots into the soft mud and stabilized his position.

“Surrender yourself at once,” Charles barked with a thick robotic voice, “or I cannot guarantee your safety!”


There was a Martian saying, “Nothing is stronger than the red rock”. This saying had many uses, especially in speaking about terraforming the planet, but also against the reason that brought the original refugees there in the first place. The saying claimed that by growing up on the red planet made you as strong as the rock you lived on. And, specifically, stronger than those on Earth who had been genetically modified. It was thought that the hardship of living on Mars not only made a person strong physically but also emotionally and mentially. Fastidious, inventive, jack-of-all-trades, and able to come up with a solution on a dime, Martians, for years now, did not consider themselves the same as “Earthers”, though both were still human. 

Almost 100 years ago now, the first refugees of Earth had ran from the blue planet to the red one. It had taken time, but the planet had been built upon, first with a giant air capsule to build the main city in, but later, as the city expanded into towns and suburbs, other technology was fashioned to be able to create atmosphere in small areas, so that the population could traverse the cities outside. They felt they successfully had left the mother planet behind, and started their own families of Martians, proud of the red planet they called home.

Until, about two years ago, when Earth’s sticky fingers decided they wanted more. The tendrils of ships and soldiers started to descend into the atmosphere of the planet. And while Mars was not a pacifist planet, it could not beat thousands of years of warring history that Earth held. In addition, most of the refugees had left Earth so they didn’t have to join the military draft or be used to make the next round of combatants. 

Once the Earthers beat back the Martian Air Force, it wasn’t long until word of a Martian draft started circulating among the cities and towns. Soon enough, the outlier suburbs were also overtaken by Earther councilmen and councilwomen who had been appointed to the controlling boards of the town. Important Martians went missing, and were never heard from again; disappeared in the night, rumor had it, by Earther soldiers. The air/space crafts would descend in the next town over, and soon, platoons of unmasked and armed soldiers would be marching across the street you once learned to first ride a hover-bike on. 

Curfews went into effect, in varying degrees by city, and Martians were expected to have paperwork or documentation showing they were not rebel forces and were actually habitating in that town. The highway system for terrestrial vehicles was blockaded so that no Martians could flee, only to be utilized by the Earther army. Large places of congregation, city halls, convention centers, and places of worship were turned into militarized zones and cordoned off. 

Essentially, Mars was locked down and had evolved into the largest prison in the universe, a whole planet.

As colorful propaganda played on screens and through the streets, talking about the amazing allowances Earth had given to the red planet, and how it had been saved, citizens were going hungry. There were ration lines and meager soup kitchens. “Earth: the Savior of Mars” stickers and pamphlets were plastered as far as the eye could see, but the once clean and well kept streets had become litter strewn and dark alleys where you could be stabbed by a fellow Martian for your ration creds, or questioned and detained by an Earther for “rehabilitation”, which could actually be considered worse than being stabbed for your currency. 

There were few lucky families that saw the writing on the wall years before, as the Earthers made the once years long journey in just a few months, or as Mars deployed Martian soldiers on ship after ship that never returned, or, as the first city of Mars, New Athens, exploded under Earther fire, but that was propagandized to Earth, and now Mars, children was as a rebel suicide bomber. These families stole away rations and spacesuits for a time and then fled past the city’s boundaries in terrestrial vehicles.

There was not a mass exodus on the desert of Mars though, as once you left the outer barriers of the habitable locations, the man made atmosphere diffused and left you to the open vacuum of space. This was not something most families could face, as spacesuits were not readily available in the years since the invention of the atmobarrier. Really, you were more likely to have a spaceship, but those were shot down by the Earth battleships once they left the atmosphere. But those lucky enough to have some old space equipment were able take their family to the red planet’s mountains and caves to hide away from the invasion as much as possible. The chances of surviving were pretty much zero, and the life hard, but some found it a better life than the chance of rehabilitation.

After the first year, most runaways had died off, unable to feed themselves once their hoarded rations had run out. Mars’ landscape was still barren and unfarmable without biotechnology to adjust the red clay, the only food was what you brought with you. This also caused infighting amongst the deserters, killing each other over rations or prime places to live. Earther soldiers were often on the lookout for ex-townspeople or people they hadn’t seen before. 

Between making the walk back from the desert without being spotted, getting into the atmobarrier without alerts calling attention to you, storing your ancient spacesuit in a place where someone wouldn’t steal it, picking up supplies that were already at an all time low for the occupants of the town or city, and not being recognized as a fugitive by the Earth soldiers, it made for a difficult possibility of living. Then, repeat the steps in reverse to get back into the desert. 

But, it was what Olivia Draper did about once a month. She didn’t know of any other deserters anymore. Most had died off from lack of food, infighting, or exposure to the elements. In actuality, those who died of hunger, really would just open their helmet to the elements and put themselves out of their misery, or, as in the case of Olivia’s parents case, to save the food for their love one that had a better chance.

It was not long after the death of her parents, that she too, almost opened her helmet. But Olivia felt she didn’t want their deaths to be in vain, and decided to take her chances of going into town. She was dead either way, right?

As she perfected her process and path to her old town, Mycinde, she found a well hidden cave not too far from the town proper. She also had a new spacesuit now, nicked from one of the Earther soldiers who wasn’t using it any longer. Once she had taken the suit, she felt her life had become exponentially easier. She simply pretended to be the dead soldier, Anderson. This all made it easy to walk in, take rations, and leave again easy. Not to mention, the new spacesuit didn’t set sensors off like the old one did. In, out, and back to her cave. 

After today’s haul, she was exhausted though. But even before she could put up her home-rigged atmobarrier, the rock that had primarily hidden the enterance to the cave had flown out of sight, as if God himself had lifted it. She readied her suits’ weaponry system, though she knew it was low on charge, and hid behind one of the interior rocks of the cave that she used as a bed.

Olivia had faced looters before, but not ones who had the ability to toss thousand pound rocks like a child’s toy. Then she heard the yelling, picked up by her suits’ audio system, “Surrender yourself at once, or I cannot guarantee your safety.” 

Earther soldier, shit, she thought as she readied her plan. This was worse. As far as she knew the search parties for deserters had been eliminated long ago. What are they doing here? Someone in town must have finally given her up, even though she’d been so careful. She’d find out who that was after this was over, if she made it out alive. 

“Comrade,” she yelled through her suits system, holding her blasters, ready to kill, “I’m just on a mission to clear duster bunkers!” 

Olivia came out behind the rock, holding her palms up in a innocent manner, what used to be ‘I’m unarmed’ before the blasters were added to the palms of the Earther soldier’s suits. But she knew that her story would only last so long. Her suits sensors told her that only one other suit was present. Are they alone? she asked herself, but it didn’t matter. If it were a looter with a stolen suit like her own, or an actual Earther soldier, it was a problem that needed to be handled. She wasn’t able to be the longest living deserter without getting her hands a little dirty. 

As the weapons of the other suit seemed to power down a little at the sight of her, Olivia decided it was indeed a Earther soldier. She then fired, straight at the soldier, then ducked and rolled, to avoid any return fire, back behind the rock she was before. She waited for a thud to come from the soldier hitting the ground, as her suit couldn’t risk too many more charges going off. Olivia made a mental note to try to charge the suit the next time she was in town. If there was a next time…


“I’m just on a mission to clear duster bunkers!”

It was very unlikely that an actual soldier wearing a retired Class C battlesuit would be proposing the explanation offered to him. Despite this, the raised hands of surrender had thrown Charles slightly off his guard with a briefly lowered his arm. Then came the pulse attack landing squarely against his chest; luckily his defense field was fully activated, neutralizing the assault with scattered blue tendrils. Had the preemptive measure not been utilized, it would have likely been a kill shot. 

Though he was physically unharmed, the blast’s impact had pushed him back a few yards, and Charles found himself shin-deep in soft Martian soil. As he freed himself to even ground with the help of his gravity boots, the expected transmissions from his squadron’s corporal buzzed into his helmet.

“Lieutenant? Health monitors indicated a spike in your heart rate. Requesting a status report, over.”

Charles ignored them for the moment. His focus was now on neutralizing the hostile threat before him without any distractions. He activated the light amplification vector array on his helmet’s visor and concentrated it towards the cave where the assailant had retreated.

Inside the cave’s curl of shadow he saw the bright outlines of a rock and a heat signature hiding behind it. Gotcha, Charles thought to himself. He outstretched both of his arms and affixed the modulation grids of his gloves towards a convergence point. With his right arm he yanked the rock from its position towards the cave’s entryway, watching it topple into the mud below. With his left arm he pulsed a net matrix, paralyzing his startled target. With a come-here gesture of his hand, he pulled his incapacitated prisoner forward into the dingy light.

Sloppy footsteps amidst the still heavy rain made for a casual approach towards his prize. Charles managed his way to the cave’s entryway and with a flick of his wrist, straightened the head of his catch. You tried to kill me, Charles thought with a brief burst of anger. Now face your failure.

A quick inspection made his eyes widen briefly. Well hot damn, Charles thought to himself. A woman! He hadn’t seen a woman up close since before he was deployed to basic. His genuine surprise came out as a robotic purr from his voice audulator. 

A scan of the suit which his attacker wore referenced a Corporal Robert Anderson, KIA some three months ago during a conflict against insurgent forces. Charles grunted while tossing around the next appropriate step in his head. He had his captive solid on attempted murder of an Earthen official, as well as stolen military property, probably nicked off the corpse of a soldier she actually murdered. Common military sense would be to end the stray’s life here. The novelty of a woman’s presence still lingered, though, and Charles couldn’t help but push an inquiry.

“Let’s try that again,” Charles muttered stiffly through his audulator. “Who are you? How long have you been here? How the hell did you obtain that suit?”


When her bed platform rock disappeared in front of her eyes, she knew she was fucked. Moments after that, while she was trying to find cover, her whole body froze and started moving towards her now captor. What sort of tech was this? she asked herself, incredulous that her whole body was just frozen in time, but she was still able to use her lungs and face muscles.

The sound of what could only be a purr which emanated from his suit made her unconsciously raise her top lip in disgust. Oh of course, the virginal Earther soldier. 

And now, he was questioning her. Olivia eyed her helmet’s command system, wondering what she could really do. She contemplated opening her helmet and using her last breath to spit at his feet, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to end it all just yet. 

The rain poured around the edge of the cave, and she knew she must answer soon, or he would likely kill her. He may still, even if she answered. Her survival instincts were beginning to override the disgust she held for the genetically modified, technically advanced invader that stood over her. 

Pushing back the immediate response of What does it look like, Earthling? Instead, she feigned a weak voice and said, “I’m a refugee of the war. I’ve been hiding out here for a few years now, I don’t know how long.” Eight hundred and thirteen days, she thought in her head. She continued, “Would you be willing to let me get the atmobarrier up, so I could take off my helmet? I don’t have much of a charge left on the suit.” 

This was actually true, Olivia tried hard to keep the charge of her suit up, and ever since they had genetically modified the soldiers to not need to breathe, and exist in vacuum without a helmet, for extended periods of time, they had really cut out the oxygen system in the latest space suits. She did have some time, but if she was going to get out of this, she didn’t want to waste it on the conversation.


Charles tossed the woman’s explanation around in his mind. Well, he thought, at least it sounds a bit more truthful. He relaxed his pulse modulator a bit to allow for some wiggle room from his captive. Another moment passed before his decision on the matter at hand was quietly made.

First thing’s first, Charles thought before acting on his next move. He activated his transceiver and radioed out a message from his audulator. “This is Lieutenant Brock responding, Alpha code 373-A. Biological target neutralized. Suit reading 87% capacity. Investigation pending. Direct three soldiers towards origin point to await further instructions. Others to continue sweep. Over.”

His focus then directed again towards the woman. “You should have told me that from the start. I report to ESTI, not the core military arm. You could have likely talked or bribed me into looking the other way.”

The invisible net which froze her in place was released with a spread of his fingers. Charles allowed for the woman to collect herself a bit before his next instruction. 

“Get yourself straightened out here. Then take off your helmet and tell me your name.” It couldn’t be helped; Charles’ curiosity had displaced his otherwise staunch methodologies towards immediate threats. But his captivation didn’t allow for the absence of a warning.

“Try anything funny and I have three soldiers waiting in the wings. You won’t get out of this crater alive.”


Olivia was surprised he not only admitted to being bribable, but also that he let her loose to activate the atmobarrier. Not so eloquently, she slid to a sitting position, reaching for the power switch of the device. It was a metal triangle with each angle able to fold and unfold about twice the width of her palm. When it unfolded, the middle housed most of the working pieces and the power toggle. As she toggled it on, it hummed a bit. This particular version was rigged for about 15 yards of dependability. 

Staying seated, she tossed it between the two of them a bit, and looked up at him again. “It’ll take about five minutes to be properly breathable.” After she tossed it, she crossed her legs in front of her, leaning back on her arms. It was a posture that seemed very relaxed, but in all actuality, put her in an okay position to kick him, or his hands specifically, if she felt she needed to. 

They sat in silence as the barrier slowly but surely set itself up. Once her suit notified her the air was breathable, she let the latch of her helmet unhook. A small hiss emitted as the air seal broke and she removed the helmet over her face. 

Dark blue-grey eyes looked up at the lieutenant, slightly wide set in a pale complected face with slight features. Her ink black hair was pulled back in a low bun to fit the helmet, but it also mostly was kept in the same configuration to keep it out of her face. As she powered down the suit, looking at her arm screen, she said, “My name is Olivia Draper and I am a war refugee. I only have this suit because I stole it from an already dead Earthli-,” she cut herself off, trying no to insult the person who held her life in his genetically modified hands. “Earth soldier,” she corrected and finished.

Though she was attempting to cooperate, she was not interested in begging for her life from this man. Olivia wasn’t against bribing him, but it’s not like the soldier didn’t have as many rations as he could ever want already, and besides the atmobarrier and the suit she wore now, she didn’t have much else to her name. She felt her body clench as she realized she could bribe him with her “womanly ways”, but wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the possibility of being raped and then left for dead either. But who’s to say he wouldn’t use that tech to do it without your consent anyways, her brain perked up, reminding her it could always be worse, as it often did. 

“I’m just trying to survive. What do you want from me?” she tried.


Charles watched the woman closely as she tended to her atmobarrier before removing her helmet as instructed. Even with the required antiphrodisiac shots and libido-dampening brain implants, the presence of a woman’s face ignited a quiet, controlled lust. Olivia’s soft, pale skin had especially moved something within him.

He took in her slate eyes for a few moments, then slowly reached for his own headpiece. With a visible gust of pressurized release, his helmet lifted to reveal a pair of almond-shaped brown eyes that swirled with an emerald green. Charles’ well-framed face tapered down to a dimpled chin; a thin beard traveled back up to his sideburns and blackish-brown hair. A faded scar, lightened with time, traveled up from his left cheek towards his temple.

He studied the helmet in his hands, rolling it to check for any blemishes or cracks, then set it against his hip with an extended arm.

“We were deployed here because a series of heat signatures were detected parsing the atmosphere over this sector… likely several podships making their escape. I don’t suppose you know about anything about that?” 

Charles let the question hang in the air for a brief moment, though he wasn’t seeking a direct answer to it. He latched his helmet to his utility belt and folded his arms, sensing something amiss with Olivia’s relaxed posture, then continued.

“Look,” Charles explained with a breath, “you might not believe it, but you’re lucky we crossed paths. Our orders were also to map out a topographical survey of the sector. That means the Earth military has taken an interest in occupying the area. Likely adjacent sectors as well, sooner rather than later. So in all honesty you should have left here days ago.”

He paused to analyze his own words. Where could she really go? Even if by some miracle she found another haven far from their current position, it’d only be a matter of time before it was systematically seized to further choke out any unaccounted strays. Mars was a big planet, but not so big it couldn’t be strangled by the hands of a hungry Earth empire. Olivia’s days were certainly numbered before her inevitable capture, death, or both.

There was, of course, an alternative. Charles wondered if it would be a waste of breath against Olivia’s suspicious ears, but it was worth a shot.

“There’s something else you can do,” Charles began hesitantly, gauging the interest in Olivia’s eyes. “Like I’ve said before, I report to ESTI. They’re a separate entity from Earth’s political council and not subservient to government authority. I don’t know what your understanding of the mandate is, but there’s some disagreement powerful Earthlings behind what you’ve seen on the telescreens.” Charles found it ironic that the institute which created Liquid Evolution also cautioned against its widespread application to the deaf ears of overzealous politicians.

“ESTI has unofficially sanctioned a refugee program within the scope of its administrative reach, to both Earthlings and Martians alike. If you declare your eligibility now, you’d be assigned a domicile on Earth’s moon with a fixed credit allowance. You’d also be guaranteed asylum from political influence for at least an Earth year.”

There was one final addendum to Charles’ offer. “I’d have to sponsor your registration to the program.” The tone in his voice said also, “You’d have to trust me.”


Startled slightly by his choice to remove his helmet also, Olivia wondered if he was attempting to prove himself human to her. While he was technically human, she wondered how much humanity was really left in the man. 

“I don’t know anything about any podships,” she told him truthfully. Olivia had heard rumors about such, but because she was not interested in attempting to leave the planet, she had not investigated further, but she didn’t know anything about it. 

She pushed back a few strands of hair that had been jostled from the order of the tightly pulled hair of her head. In doing so, she inadvertently scuffed her forehead with some of the red dirt from the ground. Her whole suit was mostly covered in red, despite the rain, as she often did not leave her place of safety during storms. They were just another reason that not many of her kind survived, as they could go from normal storm to shifting sands beneath your feet in minutes. 

Why yes, I am so lucky, she thought to herself, suppressing a roll of her eyes and he continued on about some organization he was a part of. EDI? STI? she couldn’t remember, nor did she care too much about the inner workings of his genocidal planet, nor had she really seen any telescreens for the last few years.

Unfortunately though, he wasn’t exactly wrong, if there were soldiers here there would likely be construction here before long enough. She needed to do something, but to put her trust in a man she just met, from the planet that had attacked hers made her stomach twist into knots. While Olivia was not interested in leaving her home planet, she was interested in surviving. And what will he do with me if I say no? she asked herself as she looked out into the distance, though slightly foggy due to the atmobarrier and the rain. 

How could she trust an Earthling, and a soldier one at that? Olivia also felt like she was running out of time. She knew that others were on their way to back him up, and she wasn’t particularly interested in having to fend off four Earthers. The clock was ticking and all she could think about was how she would be leaving her parents’ and brother’s bodies behind all the while walking into the open arms of the planet they fought so hard to hide from. 

“What’s the catch?” she asked cautiously, knowing nothing came for free, especially on Earth.


A curious look of relief climbed its way to the surface of Charles’s face through layers of carefully managed indifference. The consideration he tossed towards Kelyn was basically an afterthought, but she entertained it with due process without an ounce of condescension. Maybe they’d get along, after all. Ch

Charles couldn’t help but stare at the woman… she was simply fascinating in a sobering way. Olivia looked so clearly defeated, as if trying to decide between hell or worse. Despite this, she seemed ready to fight tooth and nail until her last spiteful breath, prompting a quiet admiration within him.

The tired looked in her eyes suggested she was ready for Charles to cut to the chase. He had been speaking to her as if she was under his command, ready to absorb and act upon a briefing, with acronyms and terms under her belt of understanding. Instead she was a barely keeping up, just a survivor living day-to-day as best she could amidst the creeping hellscape around her. Trust was a commodity that Olivia couldn’t afford, it seemed. But Charles knew she understood the writing was on the wall. Sooner or later, Earth would fully lay claim to its red sister planet.

“You’d have to register for an occupation within the labor networks, four days a week. And report to me once a week.” Charles delivered the latter point softly, as if to cushion a blow.

He continued to observe quietly. Olivia looked quite attractive, though Charles had few comparisons of beauty to reference during his swift climb in ranks. He had submitted himself unequivocally to his military’s program, underwent numerous enhancement surgeries, and volunteered his submission to experiments with Liquid Evolution. There was no time for the curiosities of flesh; only to focus on what was right in front of your eyes. And yet, a mere chance encounter with the fairest sex had thrown him off his stride. You can make a soldier out a man, but you can’t take the man out of the soldier, he supposed.

Charles opened his mouth to speak, but clamped it shut with a second thought. He was going to explain that Olivia could stay here if she so chose, with a thirty-six hour window before a scout ship arrived to commence further investigation. She should be careful to avoid them, since they wouldn’t take too kindly to her choice of suit…

…except their vector scan arrays were state of the art and would sniff her out before she had the chance to react. It was a hopeless endeavor to stay here. Encouraging a stay of circumstances would only ensure Olivia’s doom.

With a sigh, Charles reset himself. “If those terms are acceptable to you, I guarantee you’ll be sleeping on a bed within 24 hours.” Silently, he savored his prolonged authority, but yearned for Olivia’s trust as well.


“You’ve got to be shitting me,” she said harshly as Charles finished saying the words ‘labor networks’. She barely registered anything that came after those words. Suddenly, Olivia was on her feet. The soldier was suddenly back, and defensive, “Calm down,” she mocked, “I’m just pacing, I’m pissed. You’ve made it perfectly clear that I can do nothing against you and that suit.”

And then she did begin to pace, soon the red rising in her cheeks, though less of the orange hue of the planet, and more of a rosy color. At first, she would just look back at him as she paced, start to say something and then stop herself, then turn back to pacing. “Fucking kidding me,” would be heard under her breath as she moved back and forth, mostly after she had looked at him. Her gloved hands moved from clenched fists, to fiddle with her hair, and back again. 

Finally, with one hip splayed out, and a hand on that hip, Olivia Draper looked the Earther soldier square in the face for the first time. Her anger was palpable in the air, but so was her quiet desperation. Looking up at him, she took him in, highest-tech suit, somewhat tanned skin, from the UV rays of a planet that wasn’t actively trying to kill him. He had it so easy, and here he was trying to “help” her.

“I’m not sure if you know this, but if I wanted to be put on an allowance, kept track of, and to provide labor,” she put air quotes around the last two words, “I could have walked into that city eight hundred and twelve days ago!” She gestured at the town of Mycinde, and paced away from him again, then gestured back again, “I would have just told my parents to fucking leave me. I could have been sleeping on a bed instead of a rock formation,” she mocked him again, “for the last two and a half years.” 

“But instead, I packed up with my parents and my brother, and all of our food and none of our worldly possessions, in a two car terrestrial cart, and drove off in the desert. Do you know why, Earthling?” she asked, but didn’t pause to let him answer. “We did it, because dying in the desert was still a better life than the one your planet planned to commit a mass genocide of our planet with!” Her face was really red now, and she could feel the hot, angry tears stinging her eyes. Her hands gestured wildly, something that a historically spacesuit-bound populace had adapted to do to show emotions and expressions that were lost in the suit. 

She was in his face again, getting angrier that he didn’t seem phased and that she knew he could likely see the tears welling up in her eyes. “I didn’t bury my family in the desert just to move to Earth’s moon like a good little Martian slave!” she yelled, and beat her fist into his chest. It was instinctual, but with the mix of his shield and low gravity, she was knocked back into the dirt on her ass without him even moving a muscle.

It felt like a metaphor for the whole situation. A Martian, fighting to live without interference, and the Earther not even having to move a muscle to knock them in the dust. Wiping away the fallen tears, jostled by the fall, her face was caked with more dust and mud, leaving her with two wide red stripes under her eyes and one, upwards, in the middle of her forehead. She was the epitome of a Martian, stolen tech, red dust war paint on her face, and anger like the war god himself. And now even more so: still angry, but broken and tired, with little chance left. 

As Olivia was wiping her face, three soldiers appeared through the atmobarrier. The barrier washed over them, almost like water, then sealed behind them. For a second, Olivia couldn’t breathe, but the lieutenant didn’t seem phased. Still on the ground, Olivia contemplated getting back to her feet, but worried that would cause an adverse reaction from the new soldiers. 

“Ah, what have we here, boss? Nice catch,” one of the incoming soldiers said off-handedly as he popped his helmet off with a hiss. One of the others reported, “We heard some muted yelling through the barrier and your heart rate spiked again. We thought we’d come in for back up, just in case.”

The first soldier walked towards Oliva and offered her a hand to stand. She took it, but very hesitantly. Once she was on her feet, he swept her into his arm and leaned over her, like the Earth-iconic picture after the second world war. “C’mere little alien, give me a kiss” he said and tried to put his lips on hers. His hand was tight around her waist, as she attempted to push against his chest to get away from him. “Stop,” she tried, slightly jokingly at first, but then said it more forcefully. “Stop.”

He was about to actually touch her lips with his, and Olivia’s mind was racing. She knew they were genetically enhanced to be stronger, especially if she was only surviving on one ration a day. Doing the only thing she could contemplate, she threw the heel of her palm into his nose. He dropped her immediately to grab his now bleeding nose, “Martian bitch!” And for the third time in the last hour, Olivia was on the ground. She and her suit were now lightly sprinkled in the outside rain and some of the blood of the soldier. 

Quickly, she slid away from him to get her back against one of the walls. The man’s nose was stopping bleeding, and he was moving towards her again, “Get back here.”

“That’s enough, corporal,” the original soldier said to him sternly, and he slowed. Olivia looked at him, her face saying Don’t you see why I’ve hidden so long?

The corporal turned back to his commander, his words slightly slurred by his nose, “So what are you planning to do with this fucking duster?”


Before Charles had a chance to address the corporal’s question about Olivia, Private Thompson chimed in his thoughts. “I say we all have a turn, tha’s what I think, yeah.” The sentiment roused a consensus of hoots and hollers, save for Charles who looked on with narrowed eyes. The situation was deteriorating fast, with the Lieutenant Commander trying to round up a pack of rabid dogs pulling hard on their leashes.

“Ay, the bitch has a military issue outfit!” The corporal snorted blood through his nose and swallowed after making his observation, then approached Olivia again with a slow prowl and kneeled close to her face. “You fucken offed one of our guys to get that, huh? Alla you Martian strays should be strung up with a rope to clean up the gene pool, that’s what I say.”

Another round of sneers and taunts were hurled at Olivia before being curtly interrupted by Charles. “Corporal, I said that’s enough! Do not make me say it again.”

The corporal turned slowly to meet Charles’ searing stare, then hopped to his feet sarcastically. He took a few steps towards his Commander, eyeing him down with a wordless challenge, before leveling his voice. “Well, sir, my apologies. I didn’t know you were havin’ feelings for a fucken red stray who capped one of our own.” 

Charles stood his ground without the slightest movement. “I’d be careful of what you say next, corporal. Very, very careful.”

Hicks’ face slowly pulled into a frown. He took a moment before snorting his dissatisfaction, then turned his attention to the other soldiers. “Aye, I’m happy for the Commander. She’s a looker after all, be good for breedin’ and such, right?” The soldiers laughed nervously, keeping their eye on Charles. There was a standoff afoot, and Hicks was no slouch. But neither was their Commander.

“I mean look at her.” Hicks extended his arm towards Olivia as if to present his case. “Little girl like that taking a grunt’s life. Probably slithered right behind him and carved his neck before he even knew what the fuck happened. Or showed her tits and mesmerized him before the big slice, aye?” His audience regained a bit of their rowdiness with a few choice insults. Charles stood quiet and still, Hicks fully in his sights.

“Yeah, I mean, I think you’d all agree, despite her luscious ass ‘n such, that maybe a bitch like this might be better off dead.” And with a lunge towards Olivia, Hicks activated his pulse blade, intent on a killing blow.

And then the blur. Charles had moved so fast the soldiers barely comprehended what happened. Hicks was now pinned against the wall with Charles’ forearm planted squarely against his neck.

“HICKS. RIGHT NOW. CALM DOWN!” Hicks’ arm dangled with the blue blade still glowing, restrained against the cave wall with a knee, as Charles yelled directly in his face.

“IF this woman is a MURDERER,” Charles continued, still loud and fierce, “then the COURTS will determine her fate. Not US. We act according to EARTH law.” Upon hearing the pulse blade deactivate, Charles loosened his grip by the slightest bit. “And you ACTED against my ORDER, corporal. I’d half a mind to CENSURE your insubordinate ass.”

Hicks grunted and groaned, his nose bleeding freely again. Charles turned to see the soldiers, huddled and watching, with Thompson’s arm acting as a barrier against intervention. Satisfied that things were now under control, he pulled his weight off of Hicks, though his fists were still primed for another round.

“All of you, escort Hicks to the pod and get him patched up. I’ll be there shortly.” And with that, Charles extended an arm to Olivia, still sitting against the wall.


As his hand extended to her, the air left the area for a moment again. She shook her head after the breath returned to her lungs, dusting herself off. “I took one of your hands before, and look where it got me.” On her feet again, she looked up at him, backing away, and shaking her head again. “I’m not going with you. With,” she paused, looking for words, “that.


With a soft sigh, Charles nodded at Olivia’s decision, though the look in his eyes seemed far from accepting it. “They were way out of line, for sure. I understand your position.” He then directed his eyes to his armband and began to punch a sequence of buttons on the miniscreen. 

“I’m sorry for this,” Charles offered, but by the time Olivia heard the words it was too late. A strong sedative seeped into her neck through the soldier’s suit she wore, meant as a neutralizing agent for rogue soldiers. But as the confirmation screen confirmed success on his miniscreen, the auditory hum of a powerdown was heard as well. The last of Olivia’s suit’s reserves had been exhausted.


A cold chill ran through Olivia, though the sun was still on the same side of the planet.  Her eyes fluttered and she stumbled a bit, but still tried to aim her body away from the last soldier. “Did you drug me?” she sputtered as she crumpled back to the ground, her eyes opening and closing, as if she was falling asleep but after a few moments awakening again.


The offer for a couple’s massage caught Charles completely off-guard, prompting an embarrassed bite Charles wouldn’t answer, only watch as Olivia stumbled about, her eyes fighting the sedative with futile resistance. A few moments would pass, however, and he would sense something was wrong. Olivia should have already fell limp to the ground, but some conscious babbling was still leaking through as she meandered the cave. He realized the powerdown probably negated the full effect of the sedative. “Shit,” he thought to himself as continued to observe, hoping for a better chance to seize and collect her.


Olivia’s face scrunched up, confused, in what likely was the softest expression she’d made in the last few months or even years. “Why am I so cold?” she asked, almost a whisper. She was slipping in and out of consciousness now, her body leaning against the cave wall, with her knees pulled close to her chest.  She was clearly confused and starting to lose her grip on what was happening around her.


His eyes trailed Olivia as she surrendered herself to a corner, seemingly lost in another world or unsure of the one she was in. Charles approached slowly and cautiously so as not to alarm her, then knelt down to take a look at her eyes. They were dilated almost to the point of swallowing the slate color that surrounded them. He took another moment to ponder his next move. He reached for an old blanket in the cave and draped it around Olivia’s shoulders. Then, he spoke in a low voice to match her question. “It’s okay. You’re home, Olivia,” he said through a breath.


With his face closer to hers now, quickly her eyes flickered up to his, “August?” She asked, incredulous.  “August! Where have you been?” Her hand, moving as if it weighed fifty pounds, reached out to Charles’ face. “I looked all over for you, little brother.” 

She smiled softly at him, though it seemed she was confused by something that she just couldn’t place. “Did you come to get me out of here, finally, Auggie?” she asked, fumbling to twirl a strand of his hair around her finger playfully.


Slowly, carefully, he guided Olivia’s hand between both of his palms. “Yes, Olivia, it’s time to go.” Charles assumed the less he said, the better as he lifted himself onto his feet as a prompt for her to do the same. “We don’t have far to go. Just come with me,” he encouraged while curling a slight smile across his lips.


She tried to get up to follow him, but didn’t seem like she was actually able to get up. As this occurred, she tried to cover her weakness by pulling on his hand and saying, “Wait, did you already get Mamá and Papá? Or do we need to go get them?” It was clear though, she was trying to hide her inability to get up from, what she thought was, her younger brother. Her other hand brushed the side of her face absently, smearing more dust and mud, and now even blood, on her face and hair.


“Mamá and Papá are waiting for us.” Charles copied her enunciations as exactly as he could, shifting forward to allow for Olivia to use his arm as a brace. “Ups-a-daisy,” he said through a grunt, helping her to her feet and guiding her towards the cave’s entrance. With calculated steps, they approached their helmets laying on the wet cave floor. Charles reached for his and presented  it to Olivia. “You have to put this on. Just for a little bit,” he explained as he activated the oxygen feed. Then, after latching her helmet to his belt, they approached the edge of the atmobarrier.


Olivia held her hand out to and through the atmobarrier, giggling. “Okay, Auggie.” After a few steps she looked at him from the side, fumbling a bit, “Where have you been?”


They parsed the barrier, slowly but surely making their way up the crater’s bowl to the level ground around it. Charles considered his answer to Olivia’s question. “Looking for you, silly.” He hoped it would quell any further questions until they loaded onto the ship.


“But where?” she insisted as they neared closer to the ship where Charles was leading her. As it began to rain on them, raindrops pinging of their helmets, she looked up and laughed again, leaning further into him. “Remember when I told you the rain outside atmo was acid and you were afraid of it for a whole month?” Olivia full smiled now, looking up at him. “I really miss those days,” she added under her breath.


“I do too, I do too.” Charles was engaging Olivia’s questions and comments with the vaguest responses he could muster. The podship’s door slid open as they closed in, and Charles made a swift hand gesture towards his seated squadron, instructing them to keep quiet. “Let’s get you seated now, we’re almost on our way,” Charles explained while guiding her inside the ship towards the Commander’s cabin.


As the two walked past, Olivia felt a sharp swipe against her thigh. With the suit completely dead, it was little more than a jumpsuit at this point, except in the places that had armored regions, such as the chest plate. “Ow…” she said suddenly, as if the rip of her skin brought her a little more back into the real world, she pulled away from Charles immediately, and backing up, directly into the seated soldiers.

“Wait, what is going on?” she asked, more clear now, and trying to maneuver away from all of the soldiers and back out of the ship. “You’re not August,” she added, accusatorily at Charles, as blood began to weep down her left outer thigh.


Charles leaned forward in his chair and studied the image carefully. Nothing about it triggered any inWith a snap of his fingers, Charles had activated the podship’s lockdown protocols. The soldiers watched and waited as Olivia became more aware of her surroundings… of her situation. Panic quickly seeped into Olviia’s face as her escape was obstructed, and Charles thought thought on his feet. He reached for a medkit and dumped the contents to find the syringe of morphine, then rushed Olivia while thrusting it into her shoulder. “It’s okay, shhhh,” Charles said near her ear while cradling her back with his arms, ready to support her before she went limp.


The doors slammed shut behind her and suddenly there was a full G of pressure on her. She crumpled a little, but with a flash, Charles was on her and all of a sudden, there was another sharp feeling and she was out. She fell roughly into the ready arms of Charles.


The Bloodhawk podship had been spaceborne for three days, having now passed the artificial planet X-7SC. Olivia sat asleep in the typically vacant co-commander’s chair, strapped by her wrists and ankles with an improvised IV feed of morphine fed into her arm. Her thigh wound was cleaned taped with medical-grade gauze, and her head was cleaned haphazardly with antimicrobial agents. She slept mostly undisturbed, with the soldiers ordered to stay some distance away. A force-fed capsule tended to Olivia’s bodily excretions, rendering them inert and reabsorbed into her body.

Since the podship’s departure, Charles kept busy outside his normal quarters with command post messages, as well as laying down reprimands to his squadron, especially Corporal Hicks. On occasion, when the soldiers were tending to duties, Charles quietly monitored the Martian refugee. His hand’s palm graced Olivia’s forehead to check for fever, worried that infection may rear its head despite their disinfectants and wound dressings.

The quiet lust came and went as well. Charles conjured up scenarios in his mind where he and Olivia would come to terms despite their rocky encounter on Mars, then build over time towards a lover’s embrace underneath a soft bed’s covers. Practically, though, he knew that could never happen. He had almost certainly earned her venomous spite for the rest of his days, a reality he somberly accepted. Despite this, he was still determined to ensure her safety with ESTI’s refugee program and hold true to his word. He decided he could reconcile his urges towards the Mate Exchange during his upcoming leave. Of course, the forty days from now back to Earth had to be conquered first.

The IV slowly and surely dripped its contents into Olivia, ensuring her silent compliance. Slowly and surely, however, the morphine ran its course, and the time came when a withered bag indicated Olivia’s looming return to consciousness. To ensure a minimum of ruckus, Charles stayed with Olivia to try and pacify her likely panic. Outside the commander’s quarters, soldiers peeked in ever so briefly, with Hicks’ scowl almost caught by the Commander’s watchful eye.

Finally, a twitch, and Olivia opened her eyes to see Charles before her, seated and waiting. 


Waking from what felt like her death, Olivia found the commanding soldier staring at her. Almost with a groan, she found her limbs restrained. “I must be like a hundred and twenty-five pounds at this point. I’ve been sustaining on one ration a day for at least a year. I also have a dead suit,” she squints her eyes at him, “Do you really think I’m such a danger to you and your crew that I have to be restrained? Four big bad Earther soldiers can’t handle a little duster like me?” She wasn’t sure why she continued to mock him, maybe because he let her, but after she had spoken, she wondered if it were really her best course of action. 

Olivia was even still groggy, but he didn’t need to know that part. And she was unsure if they had even left Mars yet, though probable. It didn’t seem like they were looking to stay on the planet for long. She took in her surroundings, she seemed to be in a room of sorts. Internally rolling her eyes she thought, It’s probably his room. Looking around more, she did at least count herself lucky that she still had the original suit that she had when she left Mars. Thigh slice and all. 

Contemplating her options, she recognized that she likely was headed to Luna, Earth’s moon as a political refugee. It seemed, despite her protests, that is what he had decided for her, and there wasn’t much she could do about that now. Her eyes finally fell back upon him, her face resting in an unsurprised but slightly perturbed look. “Take a hologram, it’ll last longer,” she added without thinking.


Charles stood with his arms folded, leaning against a wall as he absorbed Olivia’s taunts without reaction. She could see his fingers drum, slowly at first with gradual intensification, thap-thap-thapping against his bicep. When she was finished with her quips, Charles narrowed his eyes, then reached into his pocket to reveal what looked like a small circuit board and held it between his thumb and forefinger for Olivia to observe.

“So,” Charles began with a heavy breath, “your story with that soldier suit of yours checked out. This is our equivalent of a black box recording retrieved from your suit. You definitely had nothing to do with his death.”

“However…”

Charles then turned to the telescreen hanging beside him to activate it with a fingerprint sensor.

Olivia would see a screen of flat earthy red at first, until it became apparent that it was an overhead view of her home planet, with what looked like black and white ants maneuvering themselves upon it… Earthen soldiers was the obvious assumption. A pan scan then pulled the view to almost ground level… and a piece of blanket and ration tray could be seen peeking through from the ground, occasionally swallowed in shadow by someone passing.  It became abundantly clear that the crater she once called home had been leveled by Earth’s forces.

“It turns out,” Charles continued, “that those heat signatures were spypods with origin points from Planet X-23L. It seems as though there’s been some collaboration with X-23 and Martian insurgents. Your sector and all adjacent sectors have been upended for a thorough investigation by Earth’s forces.” He paused to glare into Olivia’s eyes. “I certainly hope you didn’t know anything about that.”

He took a moment for the implication of his words to hang in the air. Then Charles reached into his opposite pocket and pulled out a small rectangular packet. The words MILITARY ISSUE ran in white letters across an olive green wrapping. He tossed it upon Olivia’s lap and followed it with a few words into the air: “Release restraints on co-commander’s chair, alpha code A731-B.” Olivia’s bindings immediately retreated into the chair’s legs and armrests, freeing her.

“It’s a meal bar,” Charles explained to Olivia as he nodded towards the green package. “Eat it or don’t.”

Olivia wouldn’t have any time to supply her opinions on the matter. Charles, it seemed, was on a tear. He then yelled towards his cabin’s door, “HICKS! Get in here!”

Corporal Hicks, the soldier which has almost killed Olivia, then opened the door and entered without hesitation. His steps were somber as he ten-hutted in front of her, seemingly ready to obey further orders.

“Hicks,” Charles directed as he watched his subordinate closely. “Apologize to the Martian woman. Her name is Olivia.”

“Olivia, I sincerely apologize for my repugnant attempt on your life three days ago. I have since been severely reprimanded and stripped of rank.” It seemed as though Hicks’ teeth were grinding slightly in between his words.

“Hicks,” Charles continued, “after this meeting, explain what will happen if you come within twenty feet of Olivia, or activate weapons towards her person, without my explicit direction.”

“My suit,” Hicks explained with a sigh, “will inject me with a potent tranquilizer, rendering me unconscious instantaneously. I will then be surrendered to a hypersleep chamber for a year’s time until I am awakened for rehabilitation and labor camp duties, within a sentence of not less than two years.” His eyes wavered with quiet resentment.

“All right then.” The rumbles of drumming fingers stopped. “Turn your eyes to me, and speak freely.”

Hicks did so without a second’s respite. “I still don’t trust her Commander, and neither should you. She may not have offed that soldier but she was up to something in that god-forsaken crater. And even if we stopped whatever it was she was doin’, she’ll find something to do on Luna. Something we’ll all regret.” Hicks stopped himself there, sure that he had pushed his limit.

Charles eyed Hicks close, then nodded briefly. “Your concerns have been noted, Private. Now please leave Olivia and I alone.” And with that, he left the cabin and back to his duties as a squadron cadet.

His attention then turned to Olivia once more. “Your arms and legs are free. Move around, get your blood moving.” Then came the sarcastic addendum. “Or just sit on your ass and seethe all you want.”


As the restraints zipped back inside the chair, she pulled her hands together, rubbing her wrists at the point the restraints were. Most everything after that was a blur of machismo showmanship on behalf of and for the commander. However, it was hard to hide at least some of the surprise on her face when Private Hicks apologized. 

Silently, she took the meal bar and started to unwrap it. After taking a bite, chewing, and swallowing, she looked up to the commander, pulling one leg across the other. “Not all Martians know each other, and not all Martians are rebels, you know,” she said without a hint of sarcasm or malice.


Charles, still stout in his assertions, snorted his sarcasm. “Not every Martian I’ve met has blasted me in the chest with a weapon either.” He shook his head and turned off the telescreen, then looked straight into Olivia’s eyes. “I could have died, or perhaps been incapacitated. Then you would have really been fucked. Lovey Dovey Hicks was next in command at the time. I’m sure you’d still be on Mars right now with him in charge… though alive or dead…?” He let the question hang in the air with a soft shrug of his shoulders.


They sat in silence as Olivia quietly ate the meal bar, not speaking a word to his accusation.  She mostly looked down at the large MILITARY ISSUE letters of the wrapper in her hand. Once she was finished, she got up slowly from the chair and paced around the room, though not angrily this time. 

“So now what?” she asked, facing him upon one of the paces. “Now, you just ship me off to some labor camp and call yourself a hero?” there still wasn’t any malice in her voice, but she continued. “If that was the plan all along, why not just leave me at the one in Mycinde and be done? Or, why not just let me die in my cave?” she asked, genuinely trying to understand why she was in transit to Luna.


Exhaling a soft frustration, Charles locked on to Olivia’s eyes. “Let me ask you this: why does it seem like you’re on a mission to die right now?” He wouldn’t wait for a quippy answer, instead reaching for a portable telescreen and turning it on with a thumbprint. A graphic of a large glass building displayed, with the acronym ETSI superimposed upon it with block letters. 

“That’s who I report to… Earth’s Technological and Science Institute. We might look like a bunch of military assholes…. and maybe one or two of us are…” Charles passed a casual glance through his cabin door out to the soldier’s station. “But we swore an oath to honor and protect the sanctity of life whenever possible. Given that we sometimes have to shoot at things,” Charles sighed, “the oath was changed from “without fail.”

“And,” Charles continued without a hiccup, wise to Olivia’s injection of quips, “I’ll save you the sob story, but I abandoned someone in my past long ago, and regret it every day. Maybe that was an undue motivation to try and save you, but it is what it is.”

“Any other questions?” Charles said as he folded his arms.


“Yes,” she quirked quickly, after his diatribe, “Why do you seem to think that a labor camp is any life I would want to have? Or anyone for that matter?” His continued speech just pointed out how convoluted his world was. She ignored the screen and waved it away, unimportant. 

“The question is less ‘why did you save me?’ And more ‘why do you think a labor camp means saving?’” She pointed out willfully. “I know literal hundreds of Martians who risked their lives and lost them to the desert, or each other, to avoid said labor camps.” 

Finally, she returned to the chair she was in previously and crossed her arms across her chest. “What you’re doing is not saving. It’s enslavement under the guise of saving.” One eyebrow quirked up at him, wondering how he was going to take the questioning of most of the system his life seemed devoted to.


Charles opened his eyes with the briefest exasperation, then moved the telescreen into Olivia’s sight once more. “Okay, another thing to iron out. I admit that Earth pushes its propaganda hard onto all the Martians it can reach. But the counter-propaganda is just as bad.” He navigated to a subsection of the digital brochure, called “Labor Communities.” Pictures of seemingly content workers were rotated, as well as interior pictures of pleasant-if-not-quaint domiciles and robust cafeterias.

“I’d say labor CAMP has a bad connotation. They’re self-contained communities run by elected Martian councilmen. Assigned work duties are admittedly a requirement, but the hours are fair and there are frequent observations for the well-being of workers.”  He paused to consider his next point. “I have a good friend who lives in one now.”

“But you’re right,” Charles conceded, “there are OTHER types of camps. You just happen to be not on your way to one of those.”


Once again, Olivia did not pay attention to his screen, waving it off as more propaganda. It was clear that this Earther did not allow his mind to go further than his planet told it to. The bottom line was, she was now off Mars and headed to Luna and she was going to have to do her best with what was given. She worked hard to not continuously roll her eyes at him. 

“So how long until we get there, again,” she looked at his suit, for the first time since all of this began, for his last name, “Commander…. Brock?” This question was tinged with with sarcasm and followed with a humorless smile. “And what am I supposed to do until then?”

Olivia was unsure if, though proven not guilty of killing her suit’s owner, if she was to still be treated as a prisoner of this ship. She also didn’t know how well Private Hick’s cronies from the cave would behave if they didn’t have the same punishment of his. Perhaps being a prisoner would be safer? she wondered to herself as Olivia tried to figure out her next move.


The sobering reality had begun to sink in. Olivia simply was not going to listen to him. The distrust within her had fully risen to the surface, or perhaps it was stubborn spite. Charles pushed an exhale though his lips and then drew his eyes to his telewatch.

“Let’s see… thirty-nine days, seventeen hours, thirty-four minutes, and nine seconds until arrival at Luna base.” He absorbed the surefire onslaught of complaints, and then offered a kernel of consolation. “Flying through space has a strange way of making months feel like days. Just don’t focus on the time left.”

“As far as your sleeping situation,” Charles continued, “you have two options. Here in my cabin…” A punch in his telewatch activated a horizontal Murphy-style bed that pulled down from the wall behind Olivia. It looked cozy enough despite the bland military colors, with a soft mattress, blankets and pillows, as well as what looked like a temperature control module and dials for various other customizations. Charles wouldn’t dwell on the option and turned to the telescreen.

“Or the prisoner’s quarters.” A thumbscan turned the telesceen on once more, feeding a view from a surveillance camera. It showed the interior of the prisoner’s quarters, pewter-colored and cold to the eyes, with a stiff slab for a bed jutting from one of the walls as well as a toilet recessed into another wall. No further comfort was offered.

“i’ll be sure to deactivate the surveillance for your privacy,” Charles commented, though he was sure Olivia wouldn’t believe him. And then, assuming the decision was already made, he nodded towards the blanket and pillows on the Murphy bed. “You can take those with you if you like. Breakfast is at 0800. I’ll come and release you then.”


Slipping past him to gather the pillows and blanket, under her breath she said, “I don’t expect you to be clearing your quarters anytime soon, so,” Olivia trailed off, letting the implication fall as it may. “Care to shaw me to my quarters?” she dead panned and moved to walk from the commander’s quarters. 

After a walk down a few corridors and being assured that Commander Brock was the only one with the ability to open the door, Olivia found herself in the previously viewed, drab, prisoner’s quarters. Ironically, it almost felt like her cave on mars, with some upgrades like plumbing. Tossing the pillows on the bed-like slab, Olivia curled up in the blanket and leaned against the wall adjacent to the bed. Letting her head fall back against the wall, it wasn’t long until she felt sobs wracking her war-warn, malnourished body. 

Crying wasn’t an activity that Olivia made a habit, but it was as if everything just hit her all of a sudden. Closing her eyes, the tears streamed down either side of her face in silence. While she counted herself lucky that the last three days of Earther-induced coma did not present her with dreams. Thinking on it now, she wasn’t sure she would have been able to handle those. Lightly sedated Olivia didn’t seem to know better that she had watched both of her parents and brother die, but she knew better. And now, any ties she ever had to them were thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of miles away. 

Eventually, the sobbing stopped and she curled into a ball on the slab, though resting her head on the pillows, an amenity she hadn’t had for quite some time. The red glow of the door lock reminded her, though, of the prisoner she was. It wasn’t as if she could come and go as she pleased. She was locked in until the commander allowed her out. Closing her eyes tighter, she tried to push it all out of her mind, and soon found herself in a dreamless slumber.

The sound of the door unlocking with a clank woke her quickly. Instinctively, she sat up right almost instantly and held a palm out, forgetting the suit was completely dead. After a breath, she heard the commander’s voice from one of the speakers near her, alerting her that it was breakfast and her door was unlocked to her. After calming herself from being startled out of sleep, she undid her hair, now a mess from the almost five days without being brushed, and contemplated her plan for the day. She wasn’t sure if she would be required to do tasks or if she was just expected to report to eat and then back to her cell. 

Once she had run her fingers through her hair to the best of her ability, she worked it into a braid. The black strands almost fell to the middle of her back, at their longest now. Absently, she checked the cut on her thigh as she went to open the door. As she pressed the open button and re-attached her gause, she ran directly into the large chest of a soldier she hadn’t seen before. Or at least, one she did recognize as being in the cave that day. 

Bouncing back immediately, her guard was up, wondering if there was going to be trouble. But suddenly, the chest rumbled out, “I’m Chief Science Officer Amos Holden. Don’t worry I don’t want to hurt you.” Olivia eyed him, not really trusting him. But he continued, “I’m more of the science aspect of ESTI, less of a soldier, you see.”

The only thing Olivia saw was that he was likely the only person on the ship that was bigger than the commander, and that he had an almost Martian-like lilt to his hand motions. Though she was still taking him in, he continued still, “While I still am an Earther, I study aspects of Mars, and other up-coming planets, to better preserve some aspects that we can.” Even before she could give him an eyebrow, he slowed her, “I know, I know. I’m mostly just a figurehead, but I do the best I can. And, Commander Brock is one of the better commanders for listening to the reports I give than any other commander I served.”

Amos turned, expecting her to follow. When she didn’t, he stutter-stepped and motioned back to her. “I’m assuming you don’t know where the mess all is?” Olivia nodded, still trying to take him all in. He was a bit of a whirlwind. She moved to follow, and he almost immediately started asking her questions. By the time they had reached the mess hall, he had covered how she felt in the full G they had on the ship, her origins in the Martian hierarchy of families before the fall of New Athens, and he was beginning to work on how long she had lived in the desert when Olivia spotted Private Hicks. 

Seething quietly, she then noticed that before she and Amos had entered, Hicks had been headed to what now looked like an empty fruit bar. There was a lone peach, though it looked as if a few days of space travel did not do it well, and had been picked over. But now, it was the seemingly last one, at least for the days’ breakfast. Olivia hadn’t seen non-dehydrated fruit in a very long time. Even before the war had technically begun. Her mouth watered slightly, and she moved so that Hicks would have to back up to stay outside of the 20 ft radius.

With the sweetest, most innocent smile she could muster, she slowly grabbed the peach, turned it in her hand, then took a juicy bite of it. Some of the juice ran down her wrist and chin, and she licked it off, enjoying each drop. The peach tasted delicious, but the revenge and spite tasted even better. Amos took this in, and gave a laugh. It seemed that Olivia wasn’t the only one that Hicks picked on. 

“You may want to tell your prisoner friend that even though you look big and bad, you won’t be able to protect her, science boy,” Hicks shot, hissing below the hearing range of most of the crew that was present. Amos looked embarrassed, but ushered Olivia to the kitchen-esc area to show her the options. After setting her up at the coffee machine, she was ecstatic. She hadn’t had coffee in years either. 

Amos eventually found them a spot to sit once they had gathered their food, and put Olivia behind him against a wall. If you weren’t looking, you wouldn’t even notice she was there. Happily enjoying her breakfast, she asked if they also got lunch and dinner. Amos laughed, and nodded, but her question had prompted even more questions from him.

Olivia spooned some warm oatmeal-like slosh into her mouth, savoring the heated meal, topped with re-hydrated berries and large granules of brown sugar. As she washed it down with an equally sweet cup of coffee, something Amos was saying had stopped her. “…he’s never even let me bring an unsanctioned sample off a planet before, let alone a whole person. 

“He?” she questioned for clarity. 

“Commander Brock,” he clarified for her, though it seemed, based on his reaction, that it was a piece of information he had just said. 

“He doesn’t capture people to bring back to Luna?” she asked, a bit confused.

“No,” Amos responded, “We’ve never had a non-earth human on this ship before,” he paused, “well, not a live one anyways.” 

Olivia took another swig of her coffee, pondering that bit of information silently.

Amos, of course continued with as many questions as he could ask, while also pointing out the soldiers she had already ‘met’ and the ones she hadn’t. He also mentioned to her all of which got on relatively well with Private Hicks, seeming to be fully up to date on the events of the cave. To which, when Olivia went to question him on how he knew, he had barely let her finish her sentence before interrupting her with, “It’s a small ship and nothing exciting ever happens.”

They finished their breakfasts, Olivia filled a to-go cup of coffee as Amos waited for her. “Are you my protection today?” She tried ryely. 

“Were you supposed to have protection today? The commander didn’t mention it in our crew briefing…” Amos spluttered out quickly.

“Oh, then where are we going?” she asked, surprised that she wasn’t assigned a tail in the form of a large non-combatant.

“I figured you’d like a shower and to get out of that suit?” he asked, knowing the answer. “I figured it would be best to shower after 0800, since most of this shift will shower before their breakfast/dinner shift. Because we’re all men, there isn’t exactly a reason to have separate bathrooms.” They reached a corridor that seemed a bit steamier than the others. Opening a hatch to the right of him, Amos motioned for her to wait and peeked his head in. After a moment, he turned back to Oliva and motioned him towards her. 

When they entered, there were two shower stalls, both with a door. A machine to the right of the door seemed to both distribute new towels and clean used ones. Amos showed her the buttons to press to get a towel, as well as how the shower stall worked. “I’ll be outside the door, to keep watch,” he mentioned and didn’t even look twice at her. 

“Amos?” she called out right before he opened the hatch. 

“Yes?” he asked.

“You’re not like them, are you? You don’t seem to notice that I’m female. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind at all, but they all,” she motioned to the door, “seem to be put on high alert when I’m within a hundred yards.”

Amos stifled a laugh. “You’re right, I’m not like them. I was deemed to be a science officer, so I cannot contribute to the Earth population.” He was almost robotic in his response, but he didn’t seem to care. “Not dissimilar to Private Hicks as well as Lieutenant Brock, I was altered with ‘the Liquid’, but they removed my drive completely where controls were put on theirs. However, there aren’t any women in the armies of Earth. There is actually almost a shortage of women. Hence why your existence triggers them a bit.”

“Oh,” she said softly, and he walked out of the door.

The hot water limit flashed brightly at her as she entered the shower box. The water ration lasted much longer than she needed and she relished in the warmth of it, using it to the fullest. After washing her hair and body, she dried herself off, rebraided her hair after running her fingers through it, then wrapping herself in the towel, she stepped out of the shower box to find her suit gone. In its place was a dark maroon jumpsuit with the name LWSS Zenith on the patch over the pocket, sewn in a metallic silver. The name of the ship, she figured. 

Climbing into it, she found it comfortable, if a little baggy on her frame. But it was much easier and lighter than the suit she had worn in the desert. And much cleaner, she thought to herself as she returned the towel and left the room. Amos was waiting as promised, as was Commander Brock, not as promised.


The slow, methodical exhale that left Charles’ lips cemented a decision in his mind. He had returned to his cabin with a look of dejection on his face, disappointed that his efforts towards Olivia’s wellbeing were rejected outright. Then the epiphone hit him like a crate of mealbars. His job was not to market Earth’s intentions, as beneficial as they were to the blind convictions of his newly acquired refugee. It would also do him no good to indulge in quiet longings and curiosities. He would dismiss the novelty of a woman on his ship, and return to the role of a dispassionate, stoic commander. 

And so, he threw himself into his work. Communications were meticulously coordinated with the attention of an eager cadet. Strings were tightened in terms of schedules and deadlines, much to the grumblings of the soldiers under his command. The i’s and t’s of daily ship life were dotted and crossed. Charles was determined that the clockwork harmony of his squad would not be contaminated by the grudgings of a newly introduced captive. His team would persevere. Charles’ flat-faced observance of the peach incident proved a silent testament towards that goal.

Private Hicks, eager (or perhaps desperate) to earn back Commander Brock’s good graces, reasserted his roles in spite of his demotion. Charles held back a sigh as his former Corporal requested a private meeting in his cabin. 

“Ay sir,” Hicks began quietly as he stood at attention before his superior, “As the squadron’s elected representative, our concerns have revolved around how cooperative the captive girl will be during our day-to-day duties. Obviously I’m not an appropriate candidate, but perhaps we should assign someone to supervise her? To make sure she keeps out of trouble?”

Charles thought for a moment on the matter. “The last thing we need to do is give our guest more reasons to become disruptive or rebellious. Let’s leave her be for now.”

“Is that really the wisest course of action?” Hicks asked with a bit of forced concern. “What about the potential for sabotage or God knows what else?”

Another pause for consideration filled the space between Hicks and his Commander. “I have the feeling things will sort themselves out. I’ve whipped you boys into shape and sharpened your guard. We’ll leave things as they lay without rocking the boat.”

And with that, Hicks was dismissed from the captain’s cabin. Not long afterward, while Charles was busying himself with some paperwork, a chime at his cabin door prompted another meeting.

“Amos?” Charles remarked with soft surprise while still focused on the busywork before him. “Fancy seeing you here for a one-on-one. How may I help you, soldier?”

“Well, sir,” he began almost hesitantly, “it’s about our new guest. The girl.” Amos waited for an interjection from Charles which didn’t come. “After some consideration, I realized she is a promising specimen to further some of my analyses. I was hoping for your permission to introduce and acquaint myself with her towards some interactive research?”

Charles absorbed Amos’ request without reaction, still thumbing through papers. “Well,” Charles said after a time, “if she’s able to take to anyone on this ship, it’d probably be you.” He took a moment to look up towards Amos. “Permission granted. Just do me a favor and, ah… keep a close eye on her while you’re at it?”

Amos nodded slowly and smiled. “I appreciate your generosity, Commander.” An exit from the cabin soon followed.

_____

The idea crossed Charles’ mind that treating Olivia as a crewmember might assuage her intimidation. He arranged for a telewatch to be issued and configured for Olivia’s personal use. The bed slab was also removed to make room for a mattressed cot, still not to standards with what the Commander’s cabin offered but a major upgrade nonetheless.

Charles waited patiently with Amos for Olivia to finish her shower, then greeted her at her cell with his arms folded formally behind his back. “Hopefully you’re a little more at ease now,” Charles remarked with a tone that conceded the probability of otherwise. “I’ve supplied you with a more comfortable sleeping arrangement, comparatively speaking. Hopefully it’s to your liking. Also, your telewatch is pre-configured for your bioprint activation.” There was no implied obligation for Olivia to wear it, though their emphasis by Charles couldn’t be ignored.

He turned to leave Amos and Olivia to their next activity, but not without one last reminder. “There’s an all-hands meeting at 1430,” Charles remarked. “I’d love to see you there.”


Olivia, surprised to see the commander, quickly zipped up the front of her jumpsuit a little higher, not wanting to start anything with him or any of the other soldiers. She also found herself not only taking, but putting on, the telewatch he handed her. It’s just a sign of good will, she told herself, Its the right thing to do.  Looking down at the watch, she pondered for a minute, thinking back to what Amos had said in the mess hall about the Commander not ever having picked up a Martian, or really anyone that wasn’t crew, before.

Both the Commander and Amos were turning to walk away, and with a deep inhale, Olivia reached out and put her small hand on Charles’ arm. “Um,” she started awkwardly, “It’s been quite a few years since I’ve had new tech. Would you..” she paused, looking into his eyes for a second, “Would you mind helping me learn it?”


Charles would hand Kelyn a chilled bottled water along with his laptop after fetching it from his desk. “Don’t worry about it,” he’d remark regarding Kelyn’s condolences, though the tone in his voice suggested his loss still weighed significantly in his mind. After a quick adjustment to the thermostat, C

Charles fought hard to hide his surprise at Olivia’s suggestion. She may have spotted it fleeting his eyes before he quickly engaged the matter at hand with the fluidity of a seasoned Commander. 

“Well then,” Charles explained while gently holding Olivia’s wrist upon his palm. “First the bioprint scan needs to be initialized. This will allow the telewatch to be proprietized to your unique electronic wavelengths.” A quick navigation on the small screen would send a soft, brief pulse through Olivia’s forearm. “Don’t worry, it’s temporary,” he explained hastily, as if to try and quell any complaints before they arose.

“Now that we’ve completed that,” Charles said while releasing Olivia’s wrist and deferring to Amos, “you can seat yourself at a terminal and download the mainframe software. That will sync you with alerts, briefings and informational archives regarding the ship and its occupants.” An unintentional glance at Olivia’s right eyebrow revealed a small scar running just underneath it. It added a little character to the elegance of Olivia’s face, and the revelation somehow seemed a bit too intimate compared to their exchanges thus far. Charles pulled his eyes away perhaps a little too abruptly.

“See you at 1430,” Charles said while clearing his throat, and turned towards his cabin.


Feeling the warmth from his hand and then the pulse of the watch made her a little unsure of her idea, as she looked down at the watch. But then, as the commander nearly scampered away, Olivia looked to Amos with a questioning face. Once Charles had marched down the corridor quickly, Amos said softly, “They’ll all be a little sensitive to you, you’ll have to keep that in mind. They won’t act as, I imagine, normal,” he made air quotes around the word, “human men would. Or at least the ones you’re used to.”

Olivia gave a sigh and shrugged as they continued back to her room. “Lets get you set up with the updates, and then I will leave you for a bit, then come get you for lunch before the meeting, say around 1300.” As they began to enter her cell/room, he asked, “May I join you?” She nodded, glad and surprised that he had asked.  He left the door in the open position and sat her down close to the speaker she had heard earlier in the day.

The room, however, was now filled with creature comforts. Olivia was even surprised to find a pair of grav-boots in her size next to the bed. “Oh wow, these are brand new. These will be if we ever need to cut the gravity in the ship. It doesn’t happen unless we need to make a quick maneuver, which,” seeing her face, he clarified quickly, “will not likely happen in this flight. However, if it does, the boots will sense the gravity and activate the magnets in the soles so you’ll stay attached to the floor, wherever it may be.” After a few tricks and shortcuts on both the boots and watch, Amos left her and shut the door, with the promise of also bringing her a book reader. 

She took the grav-boots off again, and curled up in the blankets and pillows on her bed while the tele-watch updated. Olivia felt lavish at this point, technology, three meals a day, books, coffee. With a sigh, and despite the caffeine, found herself drifting back to sleep. Sleepily, she noticed that the blankets and pillows that she had previously commandeered from the commander were still present and vaguely smelled of him. Before she could decide how she felt about it though, she was asleep.

True to his word, Amos came to get her at 1300, with a swift knock at her door. Groggily getting up, she slid into the grav-boots, clicked them into the locked position, and opened the door. “Ready?” he asked in a friendly tone, and they went to the mess hall.  When she returned to what seemed to have become their seats, though the two across from them stayed empty, Amos joked that Olivia was definitely gain some much needed weight if she kept eating the way she had.

She looked down at the mountain of food on her plate and jokingly said, “I don’t know what you are talking about, dear.”

As they wrapped up lunch without an incident from ‘Hicks and dicks’, as Amos referred to them,  they gathered their plates to put in the recycler and headed towards the meeting, right on time.


There was a loose gathering of soldiers at the forum area a few minutes before the scheduled meeting, chatting and chuckling and quietly watching. Upon Commander Brock’s emergence from his cabin, the group squared their shoulders and fell silent as he took his place at the head of the group with a paper printout in his hands. 

“At ease,” Charles would declare after a silent scan of the group for attendance. A soft, collective shuffle of muscles relaxing within their fatigues was heard as he turned his attention to the printout. 

“Gonna try and keep things short and sweet today…” Charles casually hunted for his first bullet point before turning his eyes up to the group. “You’ll be happy to know that Pilot Ramirez and I have quantified a shortcut with the podship’s navigational instruments, shaving our trip time by almost two days.” A spattering of applause rose to meet the Commander’s congratulations. “We’ll be shifting those hours to complement your leave upon arrival at Luna. Good job, gang. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned it.”

The Commander shifted to another bullet point. “Also, you’ll love this…” The sarcasm in Charles’ voice was evident. “Ship inventory is happening next week due to a shift in scheduling. I was hoping we could avoid it by the skin of our teeth with our original flight plan and pass it off to someone else, but it looks like the brass are anxious to have our fleets in tip-top shape for an upcoming advance operation. Sorry, gang.” The groans and sighs from the soldiers were heard for a few moments, before ceding themselves to the next point.

Charles lifted his eyes to find a particular soldier. “Private Anderson, you’ve really kicked ass with your calibration duties and meeting HQ’s deadlines. So sleep in good and long tomorrow, because I’m naming you Soldier of the Week.” Anderson smiled at his congratulatory applause, though one or two envious eyes leered at him.

“Also, one final treat for you guys…” The tone in Commander Brock’s voice was ungaugeable. “There’s been a piecemeal upgrade… update?… of Earth’s information archives and memory servers. Seems boring, I know, but in a day or two the entertainment archive will be updated with…” Charles looked down at his paper for the detail. “Eleven hundred thousand tetrabytes of archive material? Accessible by anyone with a Class C clearance, which is of course you guys. So enjoy all the books and music and movies you can handle across two millenia.” The soldiers stood wide-eyed and incredulous before loudly clapping their jubilation. 

“Save your thanks for the guys back home, I had nothing to do with that one. I’m just the messenger.” Charles smiled and planted his hands upon his hips. “All right. Open forum. Questions? Comments?”


Olivia stood there silently, arms crossed and hip cocked, slightly unenthused with the proceeding. It wasn’t but a few moments after the commander had released the soldiers from the meeting that the lights of the LWSS Zenith turned red and the aforementioned Pilot Ramirez’s voice came over the speaker system and flashed on her tele-watch, “Battle stations, soldiers”. Suddenly, everyone was moving and the commander was barking orders. Olivia stood still, slightly bewildered at the whole notion of Earth soldiers being attacked in space. By who? she wondered just as the ship seemed to rock viciously to the right, as if hit. 

It wasn’t a moment after that when they all began to float upwards. The clicks of grav-boots activated all around, and the magnetics kicked in and sucked them back to the floor. However, Olivia all of a sudden also noticed she couldn’t breathe. She looked around for the commander or Amos frantically, grasping at her throat. She knew these modified men wouldn’t even blink at the loss of air, but she was already beginning to see spots in her vision. Not seeing the commander or Amos, her chest seemed to cave inwards, attempting to suck any oxygen out of the air, but finding none. The life support systems had been shot out. She felt her boots disconnect from the floor and her body floated upwards. She was then rushed to a place she hadn’t been on the ship before. 

Looking up, her savior, of course, was Commander Brock, and he had her easily held in his arms. She wrapped her own arm around his neck to steady herself, but soon found she was passing out. As she closed her eyes, Oliva found a suit mask pressed on her face, and the air returning. She was also strapped into a chair with a harness, and looking out a window of the ship when she fully came to. Taking a deep breath, she looked around for the commander, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Aye, fuckers, leave my girl Z alone!” she heard hissed in the earpiece. She assumed it was Ramirez, as not long after that the ship shook again, but in a way she figured was them firing, rather than being fired upon.


Charles’ hand was strategically placed behind the fold-out laptop screen as Kelyn prepared herself to watch the video. He was awkwardly situated as his torso leaned towards Kelyn in his seated position, with his knee on the couch as his eyes stared resolutely towards the wall over the top of her head.

The blaring alarm set in motion the trained reflexes of a veteran Earthen Commander. First came the bellowing of orders, though they weren’t really necessary; each soldier quickly took their place without hesitation upon hearing Ramirez’s intercom alert. Charles barely had taken his seat in his Commander’s chair before a stripe of orange lights lit within the walls of the podship… “Direct hit,” the Commander shouted to his soldiers as they began assembling their counteroffensive. Suddenly the Zenith tipped a bit to its side, and the air seeped from the room, tightening Charles’ lungs without sapping his energy. “Liquid, don’t fail me now,” he thought to himself while pressing commands into his console as he focused his eyes upon the large viewport before him. 

“Where are you, you son of a bitch?” The empty void of space blanketed the viewport screen, though the hum of something could be heard within striking distance. Private Thompson, the weapons officer, would periodically break the silence with terse reports … “Coordinate threat scan pending… shields elevated to 70%… hull damage 18%. Auxiliary power on standby for supplementary allocation.”

The second hit came, and orange glow of rings shifts turned to yellow. “God dammit, where’s my return fire?? Where the fuck is this thing?!” Commander Brock’s impatient barks to his soldiers preceded what was meant to be a cursory glance to his right, where he saw Olivia desperately choking for air. His eyes widened at the critical situation before him. She was dying right before his eyes. 

“Hicks! Take command!” Charles barked his order while he unstrapped himself from his seat and rushed towards Olivia. She collapsed right into his arms before he carried her towards sick bay, still gasping wet sickly sounds. Before long a mask was affixed around her face, feeding her live-saving oxygen as Olivia was strapped to a medical chair to keep her grounded amidst the lack of gravity. 

A glance through the sickbay window would finally reveal the threat. A Martian Class B Destroyer, most likely piloted by insurgents, had stalked Zenith’s pulsetrail and made a brazen move. Olivia would hear soldiers communicating loudly in the out-of-sight battle station before seeing bright bursts of yellow find their mark… finally, return fire. A few tense moments would pass before a victory cheer was heard. The threat, it seemed, was warded off. 

A few more minutes of discussion was heard, possibly a debriefing and supplementary orders. Then, Olivia would hear footsteps down the hall towards her position. “Hey, you look okay,” Charles said with a slight smile and folded arms, leaning against the bay doorframe. “If you’re going to be on this ship, we’ll need to issue you an oxygen feed for your helmet. That was a little too close for comfort, if you ask me.”


“Is it safe now?” she asked, still slightly traumatized. The voice was fed through the mask she still wore. At his nod though, she removed it and tentatively took a breath in. Her hair still floated upwards, as did she once she unlocked herself from the chair. Knocking the heels of her boots together, she was sucked down to the floor immediately. “I see the gravity isn’t back up yet, though,” she remarked softly.


“Not yet,” Charles conceded, though the soft wave of smile never left his face. “Pulse systems take priority. Zenith took a bit of damage, nothing serious. I’d be surprised if we weren’t back at 95% operations in six hours.” He allowed himself a quiet watch of Olivia, careful not to let his eyes overstay their welcome. “We should probably get you in a decompression chamber before our pulse engines are back at full strength. Don’t want to run the risk of a collapsed lung, as low as the chance might be.”


“I’m really starting to feel like a damsel in distress more than I’d like,” Olivia stated with a laugh, but continued, “I can fix that,” ignoring the commentary about a potential collapsed lung. “I did a lot of work on the Martian life support systems before everything,” she gestured with a shrug of her hands, “ya know. My mother and father did not approve though.”


Charles’ eyes remained affixed on Olivia, quietly mulling her offer. “You’re saying you’d like to help with getting our gravity back online?” he asked for clarification. He pursed his lips and thought a moment before continuing. “I mean, I certainly don’t mind, but I’d certainly like to get our pulse engines straightened out first. Can you wait a bit before reporting to Amos for repair duty?”


“I mean, unless you’d like to be on the float until we get to Luna?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “I also don’t need help from Amos to fix it, just give me some tools and point me in the right direction.” She stood now with her hands on her hips, hair lifted in its tight braid behind her, and found herself about a foot shorter than the commander. Still, not phased by the large man, she added, “I’m sure its not going to be the same as Martian tech, but it can’t be entirely different.” Olivia hooked the face mask to her utility belt that was woven through the jumpsuit, not wanting to let it leave her sight.


“Be my guest,” Charles said with a soft nod. “The gravitron engine array is located in the rear of the cockpit. Ask Ramirez where it is exactly, he should be able to point it out.” Charles turned to lead into the hallway but added one more comment: “If anyone fusses or give you guff, come straight to me. I’ll straighten them out.”


“Commander?” she asked, this time barely a whisper. “I’m assuming that was a Martian craft? And it no longer exists?” With each question, she seemed to speak softer and get a bit smaller.


Charles stopped in his tracks before turning to face Olivia, as a Commander would face someone under his command. “We fought it off once we got our act together. But it did make an escape. Frankly, a ship of that size has no business picking fights with this class of Podship. Perhaps it was a scout or probe trying to rattle us, or keep us busy while calculating our destination point. In either case, we’ll be at high alert until we reach Luna.”


“I’m assuming you reported at least part of my existence to your command, and there are likely moles or info grabbers out there for what is left of the Martians,” with a big inhale and exhale she quickly said, “So there likely will be more attempts, specifically attempts to board. I asked Amos not to say anything, because I didn’t think it would actually be a problem.” Absently, she looked down and was fiddling with her fingers.


He listened with a fold of his arms and a slight tilt of his head. “Yes, standard protocol is to report all passengers on our database flight plan before departure between destination points. As for not saying anything…” A narrowing of the Comamnder’s eyes was quickly supplanted by the desire to maintain Olivia’s stride towards cooperation. Charles took a breath and looked down to his own hands with a smile. “Both you and Amos are forgiven if you promise to communicate all concerns in good faith from now on. Agreed?”


“Agreed,” she said quickly and continued, “But I don’t think you understand. While Mars wasn’t a monarchy by any means, the best way I can explain it is, I was essentially like the Duke of Mars’ daughter. Apparently they know, or suspect, I’m here and they’re not just going to let me go to Luna.” Absently, she chewed at her lip, unsure of what else she could say.  Someone passed behind the commander quickly in the corridor. “Maybe this a conversation to have without the door open?” she tried.


Charles flapped his lips with an exhale at the revelation. He looked towards the bustle lingering behind them and motioned towards the opposite end of the ship. “Are you comfortable in my cabin? For further discussion and clarification?”


Olivia looked like a small child who was in trouble at school, but she nodded and followed him to his quarters. As soon as the door slid shut behind them, she started, “My parents had the capability and funds to flee. Its why I was able to survive for so long. And, I told you not to take me,” she added even faster at the end.


Charles would sit down at his desk after shutting the door behind them. Not reacting to Olivia’s almost-paniced explanation, he offered with an extension of his hand for her to sit as well. “Relax. Take a breath. Start again when you’re ready. This ship, as well as my squad and myself are prepared to deal with hiccups and unexpected complications. That’s part of our job as soldiers. And it seems…” Charles took a breath before continuing, “you’re willing to help us along?”


She sat as he motioned for her to do so, pulling her legs against herself tightly, as if trying to disappear entirely. But at his question, she hesitated greatly. She fiddled with her hair, looking at the tail of her braid as if it was the most interesting thing in the galaxy. After an extraordinary long pause she said, “I wouldn’t want to have anything happen to you guys, but…” Olivia paused again, but started back up, on what seemed like a tangent. “I was engaged to the Prime Minister’s son, Bryson. It had been announced, and was of course arranged, but when everything fell… Well, we didn’t know what happened and who was still alive. But Amos told me that, essentially, I am the next in line,” another pause, “And would be” she cut herself off, “are my people.”


Charles drummed his fingers lightly on his desk before leaning back in his chair, taking in Olivia’s explanation. He seated his hands upon his stomach and silently gazed her over. It seemed that a royal figure of what was left of the Martian empire now sat before him. How ironic that she had living on the edge for so long, perhaps a testament to the persistence of the red planet’s inhabitants, despite their subjugation… 

“We’ll have to renavigate our course,” Charles finally proclaimed. “That probe likely got a fix on our trajectory and is informing every attack ship within striking distance. We’ll take a bit longer to get to Luna, but we’ll avoid more conflicts with clever maneuvers.” He sighed and sat up in his chair. “There goes my squad’s extra leave time.”


“So you’re not just going to put me in the air lock out into space?” She asked, almost incredulous.


Charles stifled a chuckle, despite the seriousness of their discussion. “Of course not. You’re still an asset to this ship, despite your monkey wrench of a revelation. But,” the Commander said while sitting up and straightening his shoulders, “I hope I can assume your cooperation henceforth? And the benefit of your trust?”


She hesitated again, but eventually nodded, “Yes, I suppose so. But I would keep my name off any logs, unless you want direct orders to kill me from your government.” She rose from the chair, kicking her heels together to activate the boots once again. 

Walking towards the door, she turned back. “Do you still want me to work on the gravity then?” She asked, unsure.


“Have at it,” Charles said with a reassuring salute. “And your civilian status makes it unnecessary for you to call me ‘Commander’ or ‘Sir’.” He pulled a slight smile upon his face. “You can call me Charles. Or Mr. Brock. Whichever you prefer.”


With a curt nod, she pushed the button to open the door and walked through it, seemingly already thinking about the repairs that needed to be done. Olivia made her way to the cockpit, introduced herself to Pilot Ramirez and asked about the gravitron engine’s location. With a rye smile, the pilot rose and took a glance at her, “I see why there’s quite a fuss about you, miss. I don’t mean no disrespect, I’m a married man. But now I understand why we’re taking fire and everything is in a bit of a tailspin.” He said all this in an almost old-western accent as he pushed a few buttons to unlock the correct panels to be opened.

Olivia, caught between embarrassment and  surprise, just felt a blush rise to her cheeks, but stayed quiet. After a few more moments and button pushes, the medium sized engine was revealed. “The tools you’ll likely be needin’ are over there, miss,” he said, pointing to a toolbox laid into the matrix of the cockpit. “Um, thanks,” she said softly, and opened the drawers, getting to work.

About an hour later, with a click and a sudden woosh, she felt the gravity pushing down on her again. Her hair swung back against her back and her boots deactivated. While parts of her face were smeared with grease from her hands, she was pretty happy with herself. “Not too bad for a duster girl,” Ramirez added with another grin as she cleaned up the space. 

“See you later, I guess?” she said, as the door to leave the cockpit slid open for her. Looking at her watch, she sent a request to the commander, recording it with the hologram-video system. “…the right button. Oh! Hi, Comman-Charles. I finished the gravity, as I’m sure you can tell. Is there anything else I should try fiddling with before dinner?” 

Clicking the message off and sending it, she started back to her quarters for the time being.


Though his boots kept him secured to the floor of the otherwise free-floating interior of Zenith, Charles felt the exact moment when the gravity was reactivated across the ship. There was a sharp pain across his body as his organs resettled themselves which quickly passed, and the strange airy feeling of flowing body hair was gone. Soon afterward, the chime on his telewatch registered a call. It was Olivia, delivering the news of a successful repair.

“You’ve done your duty for the day. Myself and the squad owes you a great thanks for your help. Take the rest of the evening off and enjoy yourself.” With that, the Zenith as a whole seemed to pull back towards a pre-attack normalcy. Charles wasn’t looking forward to telling his troops about the evasive trajectory correction that will put them behind schedule, but that could wait until the morning briefing. His squad would adapt and overcome despite their disappointment.

The smell of hot food filled Zenith around 1700, coming from the ship’s cafeteria. Automated food processors were delivering the usual nutrient-dense bowls of what seemed like porridge, as well as an alternative of nanotechnologically-produced chicken breasts and sides. A small crowd hovered around the trays of nano-chicken even before the squad was officially relieved for evening chow, and most of it was quickly claimed to soldier’s trays before Charles even found his way to the cafeteria. He quietly claimed a boring bowl of the military mush as well as a spoon and sat at an empty table which positioned himself to quietly view the entirety of his staff. 


Upon receiving clearance to return to her quarters, Olivia made her way there, starting to really reckon with the information that the day had brought. She really did not expect there to be a big enough rebel force to attack a Earther ship, only a few weeks out from Luna no less. And if they were indeed trying to save her, why would they have shot the life systems out first?  Perhaps a shot gone wrong? she wondered to herself as she accessed the room and curled up into its softness again. She truly had missed this level of softness since the war, but it obviously was not exactly up to her pre-war standards. 

Nonetheless, Olivia relaxed back with Amos’ borrowed reader and browsed through the multitude of entertainment that was available to him. Once she had started into a book she hadn’t heard of before, it wasn’t long until she was lost into its electronic pages. 

A knock on the door made her jump, and she checked the time. “Oh, shit,” she said, jumping to her feet. She answered the door to a grinning Amos. “Did you want me to bring dinner to your quarters, madam?” he asked in a faux old-English accent. 

“Ha ha,” she countered mirthlessly and continued, “But don’t say things like that!” Olivia then punched his arm and they continued into the mess hall. Beginning to salivate, Amos laughed at her, then whispered in her ear jovially, “Are we going to have to roll you out of this ship when we get to Luna, princess?”

Amos received another punch, but this one was a bit harder. He laughed at her and separated to grab his food. They reconvened at the table, Olivia still hidden behind him a bit, and she started in about how she had to tell Charles about the family history, how she engaged the gravity so quickly, and her interaction with Ramirez. 

“Where is he?” she asked, curious. 

“Oh, he gets first pick and then brings it to the bridge,” Amos answered breezily, “Being the pilot does have its perks.”


She sat as he motioned for her to do so, pulling her legs against herself tightly, as if trying to disappear entirely. But at his question, she hesitated greatly. She fiddled with her hair, looking at the tail of her braid as if it was the most interesting thing in the galaxy. After an extraordinary long pause she said, “I wouldn’t

The military mush was as tasteless as it was cold. Despite this, Charles savored every bite, chewing slowly while observing from afar. Everyone seemed to be in high spirits, even Olivia; Charles mulled over ways to deliver the news of a detour trajectory to his squad without overly souring the morale. Lost in thought, he felt a silent buzz from his telewatch and looked to see an incoming message Ramirez. Soon it displayed on the screen. “Found something, sir. Should probably keep discreet for now. Discuss?” With that, Charles lifted himself calmly from his seat, disposed of his mush and made his way to the cockpit.

Ramirez waited for his Commander while seated in his pilot’s chair, observing an enlarged scan upon a nearby telescreen. A plate of food sat upon a touchpad, barely touched.

“So what is it, Ramirez?” Charles inquired upon arrival. He instinctively steered his attention to the amplification screen, when a sea of space blackness was broken by a small, indeterminate gray object.

“That right there, sir,” Ramirez said in confirmation with Charles’ intuitive eyes. “About twenty clicks away. Class D Assault Ship. Dangerous if manned and headed for intercept, but…” He pointed to a smaller readout screen displaying numerical values and coded terminologies. “It looks like it’s abandoned and stalled out there. Readings don’t detect any latent firepower or biological entities, alive or dead.”

“Hmm.” Charles took his forefinger and placed it upon his chin. “That’s odd. Has it sustained any damage?”

“Not from what I can tell. It’s just floating in place, as if it was spontaneously decommissioned with all weaponry jettisoned. A ghost ship.” Ramirez shrugged, then pulled a smile. “Creepy huh?”

“Yes indeed… creepy.” Charles pulled his arm down to his hip and sighed. “I suppose I should beat HQ to the punch and launch an investigation?”

“No word from Central Command yet,” Ramirez said. “But yeah, I’m guessing they’re gonna want that. But I gotta tell ya… I don’t have the greatest feeling about this.”

“Me either,” Charles agreed. “Raise the ship’s threat level to Red Alert, Standby. We’re heading over.”


Amos and Olivia didn’t notice the commander leave the mess hall. While Olivia’s view was obstructed and her attention mostly towards the warm food, Amos knew it was not abnormal for any part of the crew to dine early and leave  or come in late. They were a smaller crew for the size ship they had. 

About ten minutes after Charles had left, the red alert sounded again, this time in standby. However, nearly all of the crew ate whatever bite was left on their forks and headed to the recycler to dump the remainder of their trays, then head to their stations. 

Amos did the same, encouraging Olivia to do so as well. As soon as the lights flipped to red though, so did her stomach. “Send a message to the commander for your orders,” Amos told her quickly, moving out of the mess hall and to his station. “You have your helmet?” He asked as she held it up to show him. “Alright, keep breathing this time, princess,” he said and left her. 

“Com-Charles,” she corrected faster this time “Where are you? Where should I be? I have the helmet.” She asked with a little more anxiety in her voice than she liked as she clicked and unclicked the latch of the helmet to her belt. Surely they wouldn’t try again so quickly, she thought to herself as she awaited his reply.


A few moments would pass before Charles provided a response to Olivia’s inquiry. “I’m in the cockpit. There’s been a strange discovery that merits an investigation. No imminent threat, but…” Charles stopped himself and proceed to his instructions. “There’s an unassigned turret station over near the loading bay. Have Amos program your authorization and await further orders.” A pause, then, “I’m trusting you. Over and out.”

Rings of bright red circled the interior of Zenith as the squad readied themselves at their stations. Charles had zipped himself into a specialized pressure suit in preparation for their approach of the ghost ship. Soon, the rings of red spun around as proximity alerts blared within the ship. “INCOMING VESSEL ALERT. STATIONARY, UNMANNED. ALERT.” Ramirez slowed Zenith’s momentum until it slid into a standstill. Commander Brock waited within a decompression chamber that would open itself to the vacuum of space upon his command.

FInally, with the ghost vessel within leaping distance, Charles gave the command with a hand gesture through the chamber’s window. Suddenly, he was hurled towards the ship until he clanged against its hull, rolling a bit before clasping his hand upon a latch. “Whew. Rough landing, but I made it,” Charles radioed in through Zenith’s intercom. “Slowly making my way to an entry hatch. Communication will resume when I’m inside. Stand by for further reports.”


Upon receiving her orders from Charles, she reached out to Amos via tele-watch and told him what she was to do. With a grin, he told her where to find the gun and that he would meet her there. 

“Are you ready to be armed and dangerous, princess?” Amos asked jovially. 

“You’re really running that joke out, you know,” she countered and sat in the seat of the machine. After a quick tutorial, Amos made his way back to his station and left Olivia.

Lost in her thoughts, she wondered if she would actually be able to fire the gun in front of her, at her own people. Charles’ voice broke through her thoughts though, reporting that he had made it to the ship. Unfortunately, Olivia did not know much about spaceship warfare, even in her position pre-war, but something about this situation felt very off to her.


In the black coldness of space, no one can hear you work. And Commander Brock was working against the hull of the ghost ship that floated ominously near the cautiously parked Zenith. He climbed slowly across its hull to the bay door and steadied his position against the void that pulled incessantly against his unyielding boot and hand gravitators. With a strategically placed palm upon the sealed entryway, he administered a pulse burst that yanked it forward from its hinges. Brock’s hand managed to wedge itself behind the edge of the door and pull it fully free with an ample yank. It wobbled off into the blackness behind him as he floated slowly into the bay’s interior.

It was the expected sight within, at first. A large workbay presented itself with mechanized arms folded and deactivated against the wall. Tools began to float upward and outward as the vacuum of space rushed in. Commander Brock’s boots clamped themselves to the grated floor, and he further braced himself with an arm upon a metal post as he further scanned the bay. The absence of weapons or weaponry components befuddled him; it was an assault ship he was exploring, after all. Finally, the entry door leading into the heart of the ship was found. An identification card scanner stood its ground for less than a minute before Charles implemented a pulse override that opened the door, revealing more blackness within.

The door was shut behind him as Commander Brock’s boots embraced the floor once more. His eyes adjusted to the swallowing shadows, as did his suit’s sensors; his visor drew a schematic of the hallways with a sonar pulse array that identified any potential dangers. Charles was about to take his first step forward before a transmission broke the stark silence against his ears.

“Sir?” Hicks asked through the audiofeed’s crackle. “We’re tracking your progress and continuing to monitor the ship. “If you’d like to withdraw, Amos and I can proceed from here.”

Charles thought for a brief moment before his response. “As Commander, I have sole access to port authorization codes if we find it necessary to park this thing on Earthen soil. So I believe the best course of action is if I proceed. Remain on standby with a battlesuit; I’ll request reinforcements once I’ve secured the bridge. Over and out.” 

With that, Commander Brock continued his exploration of the ghost ship’s interior. He cautiously navigated corridors and performed bioscans, rounding each corner with his palm’s pulse rifle at the ready. Readings indicated no organic presence, which was a perplexing anomaly. It seemed like the ship was scrubbed clean before desertion, or it was somehow steered remotely until it seemingly ran out of fuel or power. The mystery seemed  to deepen with each secured hallway and cabin.

Finally, Commander Brock found himself at the bridge after having swept the rest of the ship’s interior. The Captain’s chair sat elevated behind five others that offered their own control panel and monitor screen, evenly distributed across a semicircle. The large curl of viewport also wrapped around the entire bridge, offering slivers of light from distant stars that traced along the contours of seats and buttons. Gray strips of sheen also pulled along metallic surfaces as Charles made his rounds, performing the last of his scans.

Once finished, Charles plopped himself upon the Captain’s chair, with a soft thud that echoed across the bridge, as if to announce the Commander’s hard-earned luxury to deaf ears. He turned his attention to the control panel and worked on override procedures. Initially stonewalled, his computer systems discovered a bypass, and the ship’s lights and engine hummed to life, much to Charles’ surprise. He sat completely still for a few moments, as if to hide from the movement-based vision of invisible eyes. Then, his attention pulled to the schematic readouts of his personal monitor.

“2% power reserves,” Charles stated aloud to himself. The ship’s renewed life wouldn’t last for long. Activating the transmitter in his helmet, he reestablished contact with the waiting Hicks. “Bring Amos along with his tools,” he requested while his eyes noticed a shift in the viewport’s focus point. The Zenith now displayed before him in all its glory, waiting and ready for further orders. 

And then, half a click away in the distance, another ship manifested itself into existence… at first glance, a Class F Destroyer vessel. Charles found himself wondering how it was able to utilize classified cloaking technology before the horror of the situation fully set into his mind. His eyes widened with panic just as a message broadcasted into the ghost’s ship’s monitor feed.

“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THE LWSS ZENITH IS NOW TARGETED. HEAVY WEAPONS ARE LOCKED AND READY TO FIRE IF ESCAPE IS ATTEMPTED. PREPARE FOR IMMEDIATE BOARDING. CREW MEMBERS SHOULD SURRENDER OR BE DESTROYED.”


The commander’s updates did not bring her out of her thoughts, however the loud announcement screamed across her and the soldier’s comms did. Quickly, she heard quite a few curses that followed the alert. Olivia fumbled for her watch and connected instantly with Amos. “This is a drill, right?”

“I fear not, ma’am,” he answered quickly, sounding as if he was at least jogging, if not running. 

“Stop calling me that,” she snapped and began to ask another question but Amos had already appeared in the doorway. 

“With the Captain off ship, it makes Hicks acting-captain, and Lee his XO. Which is bad enough already,” he muttered as he ushered her out of the turret seat. 

“XO?” she asked, as she struggled to keep up with his long legs.

“Executive Officer,” he stated blankly, “But we don’t have time for your questions right now, ma’am. We need to get you somewhere safer.”

Olivia started having flashbacks to the fall of New Athens over twenty five years ago. She couldn’t dwell on that though, now. She noticed they were headed back towards her quarters, but he opened the door before hers. Starting to question, he cut her off, “You won’t look like our prisoner if I put you in the other cell.”

Amos hesitated, grabbed her wrist for a moment, released it, and then bowed at the hips, “Your Excellency, stay safe.” The door slid shut then, the lock clicking and lighting red. Olivia banged on the door, though she knew it would be useless. “Amos!” she screamed, “This isn’t funny!”

Attempting to open her comm link, she found her tele-watch missing. “Fucker!” she hissed and started to pace. If this was indeed an attack, Amos wasn’t wrong, this was her best chance. She didn’t expect Hicks to come quietly though. Almost as if on queue, she heard the guns fire, just before the ship shook with the inertia of the shots. A few moments after that, an even larger shift of the ship caused her to trip and fall to her hands and knees. Cursing again, she moved to get up, but another crash hurled her head against the side of the metal bed platform.

Olivia’s head pounded, making her wonder if the sounds she started to hear were close range weapons or if it was just in her head. She got up slowly, but as she did, the gravity disappeared until her grav-boots sucked her down. At least there’s still air, she thought to herself as she identified that it was definitely close range weapons. 

Chewing on her lip, her hair floating above her, Olivia moved to wipe the sweat off her brow, only to find the knock to her head had left her bleeding. Most of the firing had subsided outside the cell, she noticed. For a moment, she considered an Earther win but loss of Charles and/or Amos and shuddered at the thought of Hicks and his cronies in charge. 

More firing brought her back to the present, the firing sounded right outside the door. Then, after a minute, the door slid open. In front of her was a fully suited and armed with what looked like a very large laser blaster. His suit looked like an Earther suit, but it was black. No, not black. Red so deep it was black upon first glance. Fresh blood red. Olivia shivered and froze as if she was a deer in the headlights.

“Prime Minister Draper?” the suit crackled. Olivia nodded almost imperceptibly. “Come with me, Your Excellency.” 

There was that title again,  she vaguely thought as she moved with the soldier. As she stepped out of the door, two other soldiers flanked her. Not five feet down the corridor, she saw Amos hovering above the floor, his eyes open. She stifled her gasp as the soldier that had first opened her door pushed his body aside. She shut her eyes tightly passed him, wanting to reach out. His body would have been slumped next to her door, likely attempting to protect her. But now, his suit was burnt against and into his skin in multiple locations where he had been hit. 

Bile rose in her throat, and she attempted to not show any sadness as they passed more mangled bodies on their way out of the ship. Thompson, Hicks, and another she couldn’t remember the name of. Habron, maybe? she thought as the soldier in front of her slowed as they neared a smokey area of the ship. One of the soldiers behind her, a female voice, said softly, “Your mask, ma’am.” 

Olivia looked surprised initially, but they couldn’t see that. She unhooked the latch from her utility belt affixed the mask to her face and started the oxygen flow. Looking back she gave a slight nod. The front soldier moved forward almost immediately, confirming that they were speaking to each other on an internal communication line. 

They walked through the smoke and to what Olivia determined to be the spaceship equivalent of a tunnel and at the end, she found herself in a different ship. Unsurprised, they continued walking, until they were on the bridge of the much larger ship. Just in the bridge there were seven soldiers manning control panels and standing in front of monitors that Olivia didn’t understand. The soldiers led her towards a set of stairs that curved to an upper deck of the bridge.

On the deck, sat a large Captain’s chair, placed to overlook the bridge as a whole. “Captain Holden, we found her,” the first soldier reported through their suit. The man in the chair rose with a wide grin on his face. 

“You can remove your mask, Prime Minister Draper,” Captain Holden said, motioning to Olivia. She did so, warily attaching it back to her belt, unsure of what she was about to face. Her braid had fallen out in the process of the battle, and now back in gravity, her hair fell messily around her.

The Captain, though Olivia didn’t think it possible, grinned wider as he said, “The general will be interested to see you.”


The assault unfolded quickly. Right before Commander Brock’s eyes, a transport craft deployed from the Destroyer vessel and latched itself to the side of the Zenith. Through the ghost ship’s viewport, he saw a bright cascade of sparks as soldiers were undoubtedly carving an entryway to the core of his ship. Hicks’ transmission feed detailed the horrors within for a few gut-wrenching moments.

“Sir! An EMP burst has drowned our instruments… we’re stranded! Soldiers are taking defensive positions… they’re coming in through the hull! Grenades incoming!”

Listening through his audiofeed, Charles heard a frenzy of pulsefires quickly that dwindled to sporadic gunshot pops… 

…and then, silence. Charles was already on his way to the workbay door to exit the ghost ship the way he came in. His orders couldn’t help his squadron withstand an onslaught of gunfire, but his presence would steer the course of Zenith’s fate. As he approached the pressure-sealed door, Charles quietly cursed the recon coveralls he was wearing, which lacked in firepower compared to a full-fledged battlesuit. In his mind, however, he was ready to offset that disadvantage with sheer force of will.

…and then came another surprise. Commander Brock’s attempt to once more override the door’s locking mechanism was denied. The ghost ship had come to life, and now it seemed to be working against him. Subsequent attempts only served to reinforce the pressure seal which kept him from a desperate rescue of his squadron. 

“Fuck!” Charles yelled to himself as he banged his hand against the door. “What the hell is going on!”

As if to answer, the lights across the resurrected ship brightened with a surge of power. The schematic readings across his visor’s sensors reported the impossible… 12%… 27%… 56%… 100%. The ship was now at full power.

“What the hell…” Charles turned and ran back to the bridge to try and determine  the source of the insurgency. As the door opened to reveal the empty Captain’s chair, the viewport divulged another impossibility. The ship was not only moving… it was surging. Someone or something was controlling it remotely.

Charles stood in disbelief for a few moments as stars whizzed past him in the viewport’s blackness. His visor was already calculating the coordinates of the ship’s likely destination…

Mars, Charles soberly realized. I’m headed back to Mars.

The pulse rifles on his recon suit weren’t powerful enough to punch a hole through the ship. Charles was trapped as trapped could be, on a direct course to converge with someone or something that was expecting his arrival on the red planet. 

Flight time was estimated at twenty-seven hours. I have at least that long to prepare myself, he thought to himself while turning to the bridge door. It refused to budge. The ship had turned against him once more.

Twenty-seven hours passed quickly. The ship ignored or rejected all attempts at coordinate overrides, forcing Charles to grudgingly accept his forthcoming destination. He was now sitting rigidly on the Captain’s chair, focused on the inevitable encounter that awaited him. The military-issued cyanide pill which sat in his personal medkit flashed across his mind for the briefest moment. No, he thought with a Commander’s resolve. I want to meet the asshole face-to-face who brought me back here. Then, if I must, I will go down in a blaze of glory.

The darkness of space gave way to an approaching dusty-red planet. Soon the redness enveloped the viewport of the ship, and the heat of burning atmosphere could be felt throughout the bridge. Wherever I’m going, Charles thought with gritted teeth, they’re sure as hell gonna regret bringing me there.

As if the ship was reading his mind, the viewport suddenly shut itself closed. “Fuck!” Charles yelled aloud with a resounding echo. He was now blind to what waited for him. It would only be a few moments until touchdown, and he felt the ship begin to activate its proximity gravitation system.

“It doesn’t matter what’s waiting for me out there,” Charles growled as he lifted from the Captain’s chair. “Bring it on.”

Finally, Charles sensed the ship had completed its landing and readied his palm’s pulse rifle, aimed at the bridge door. Moments passed while he stood absolutely still… then, the sudden sound of something scrambling outside broke the deafening silence. The door exploded forward and knocked squarely into Charles, collapsing him against the floor.

“Shit!” he exclaimed, and fired pulse rounds indiscriminately towards the bright orange doorway filled with flames. He heard heavy footsteps flood the bridge, and then a sharp sting against his arm… a tranquilizer projectile. Before he had time to seethe against his looming fate, the world went black.

___

Time passed. One eye opened, then two. Commander Brock reawakened to the world with the merciless embrace of a pounding aching. Thoughts seeped into his mind slowly… the realization that he was stripped of his recon suit was the first unwelcome dose of reality. He was now wearing fatigues that were one size too tight, tied to a chair and smothered in blackness.

The headache seemed to soak further into his body the more aware he became. The tranquilizer had done a number on every muscle and tendon. His hands were numb from the tight bindings around them, and patches of burned skin introduced themselves with pulses of pain.

Just as Charles was about to muster his first attempt at wriggling and writhing against his restraints, a door slid open a few yards away, scathing his eyes with bright light. He turned his face away as a few slow-moving footsteps made their way toward him before stopping curtly. The presence seemed to wait patiently as Charles’ eyes adjusted and reluctantly turned to greet what stood before him.

“Well hello there,” a female voice said in casual greeting. The brightness pulled away to reveal a fair-skinned woman with piercing cobalt blue eyes and fiery red locks that draped down to her shoulders. She stood about Olivia’s height, wearing what seemed to be an insurgent’s uniform, with something in her hand that would undoubtedly make its presence known soon enough.

“It’s nice to meet you, Commander Brock. Let’s get acquainted, shall we?”


Olivia was not on the bridge long before a flurry of activity came through a different door than the one she entered through. The door slid upwards to reveal a colorful team of what she immediately identified as old-Mars stylists. Within the span of a gulp, they were on her like a pack of manicured hyenas. She was stunned into a learned silence, it was as if she was back on Mars 20 years ago. Seven-year-old Olivia was screaming inside, but present day Olivia was still in shock by the bodies aboard the Zenith, and the quickness of which they had been taken.

As Earth had moved into a more militarized state as the Martian planet began to grow in their own power, it was often in the exact opposite way of Earth. Frivolity, choice, and self-expression sat at the middle of Martian culture. And now those culture vultures were coming for the Zenith space suit-wearing Olivia with grease under her fingernails. 

She was whisked away to a different part of the ship, with so many people talking to her at once that she couldn’t keep track of it all. One of the women wore a bubblegum pink, skin tight full bodysuit with matching tu-tu. Another had a neon green and purple overcoat on that must have been two sizes too big. This was one part of Mars that she hadn’t missed. Often, when she was portrayed in the press as the Prime Minister’s son’s fiancee, it cited her for being boring. Now, Olivia feared she may not be able to stay herself for long, due to the title she had been forced into.

After being showered, most of her body hair was removed, and she was perfumed to such an extent that her head began to ache. She sat silently as her hair was trimmed and lightly curled, and make-up was applied to her face. But, when they were complete, she felt as if there was an entire layer on top of the skin on her face. Making a point to wipe most of the additions off once they had left, she nodded politely as they ‘revealed’ her new look and informed her when dinner would be.

Just as the group had flurried into her life, they flurried out of what she assumed to now be her quarters. There were lavish amenities, and a room much larger than the Commander’s quarters on the Zenith, let alone the captives’ quarters she had been in. She wiped most of the makeup off of her face, only to leave the eyemake-up, though significantly dulled. She messed her hair up a little, not finding the perfectly neat waves to be to her liking.

A mannequin of her size and stature stood in the corner, with a rust colored, floor length dress. It was strapless, but attached at the shoulders was what looked like a cape. It was gausey and caught the light easily, prisiming small rainbows about her. Is this supposed to be a veil? she questioned to herself, but noted it did not look as if it was supposed to go over her face. 

She resigned, after some searching, that besides the robe she had been given after her shower, the dress was the only item of clothing in the room, Olivia donned it, finding it slightly too large for her still malnourished body. A few minutes later, a few maids knocked at her door to present her with shoes and jewelry. Olivia was overwhelmed by the entire process and unsure of where all of this wealth and extravagance had been afforded. Mars, at the end of the war just before Earth had finally broken the atmosphere, was a siege racked country. This level of abundance seemed impossible.

Noting the specific lack of usefulness of her shoes as she put them on, Olivia glared slightly at the maids who had presented them, without word. Once the maids deemed her complete through silent standards, they motioned her to follow. After a few minutes’ walk, Olivia was significantly lost, but she was brought to a grandiose room that had a twelve seater table in the middle of it. Once again, Olivia seemed completely unsure of how all of this could have been managed at all, lastly in space. 

All of a sudden, a man appeared from the other side of the room, eyes smiling. He wore a bastardized version of the formal Martian Military dress, a sharp black suit and parade cap, with rust accents. “Olivia! My dear, how have you been?” Ian Fenwick asked her with a great hand gesture and slight bow. 

And then, everything made sense.


The Groundsman

The sun held high at its apex as noon tucked away the blue shadows of morning. Slivers of daylight traced the contours of Aria’s outstretched arms as they reached with bequeathing palms, the ancient Goddess Aria, bringer of Spring and Life. Her warm visage exuded a feeling of welcome beyond words as her fluttering robe flowed like rapids around her bent knees. Her stillness had endured for centuries or more, an ethereal statue much too elegant for a sculptor’s chisel.

Without prejudice, the appearance of the goddess reflected the broad spectrum of races that her worshipers represented. The orcosas, a benign faction of the orcs, insisted upon her leathered skin, broad shoulders and toothy smile. The various elven tribes marveled at the elegance of her teardrop ears. The tall, snake-skinned albinos known as the pontocks witnessed their own red-eyed miracle. Her physical appearance was truly in the eye of the beholder, but the essence of what she represented remained the same across all the beings of the great Gaia.

The timeless magic of the Western Temple floated the large statue of Aria above a wide, round dais encircled by a flight of three shallow steps. Her stone-quiet gaze peered across the grassy hills as they stretched outward towards the distant woodland, with beaten roads occasionally weaving between and around patches of trees. Stone medians flanked the temple’s manicured fields and rounded towards a series of ribbed columns serving as the only barricade within a temple otherwise free of walls, accessible to all who found themselves moved to pay their respects.

***

Pilgrims from distant lands prayed, danced and left offerings as the goddess cast airy shadows like blots of watercolor upon her worshipers. The noble families of all races brought attendants with them, often with roaming, curious eyes. What appeared to be a young servant woman happened to pass a glance towards the silent figure near the rear of the temple, standing as still as the rising columns around him. Their eyes tangled, and the caretaker was quick to rip his gaze away before the exchange escalated further.

______

Charles’ auburn gaze glowed with satisfaction upon the marble goddess, now scrubbed clean of moss and stains, with one hand on his hip and the other leaning against his upright rake. He had been up before dawn in anticipation of the approaching holy holiday, tending to his day’s tasks before the visitors arrived en masse. Absent from the stone skin of the Goddess were the colorful, wispy weeds that grew like vines and resembled small peacock feathers. Vibrant little treasures, they were, with a pulse of magic’s essence, perhaps bestowed upon them by Aria herself. Charles tucked one of the feathers away into his pant pocket, a trivial gesture to unwitting eyes…

He had lived upon the temple’s premises for years, tasked and trusted with maintaining the holy site but mostly invisible to those who would visit it. Powerful sorcerers came to offer their tributes and subsequently departed without so much a word to the quiet observer with short jet black hair and beige-colored overalls. He was, after all, a mute without the blessing of magic in any of its countless forms. Arrogant eyes might have viewed his life as a waste, but menial labor was plentiful and often reserved for mutes in search of their life’s purpose. All in all, he was dismissed by most pairs of eyes that settled upon him, and he liked it that way.

The children from various races frequently played together as their parents payed their devout respects. They practiced basic elemental spells with sporadic shrieks of delight, and occasionally interacted with Charles as they scuttled throughout the holy ground. Some stared silently, others asked silly questions. He mostly entertained their interactions with polite solemnity at the cost of distracting him from the inevitable troublemakers.

Indeed, with his attention diverted, he yelped in pain as his rake’s handle scorched his palm while distant pranksters pointed, laughed and fled. Charles allowed himself a moment to narrow his eyes and shake his head… it wasn’t the first incident, and it wouldn’t be the last. With a sigh, the groundsman shook the sharp sting of heat from his hand and claimed his rake once more from the grass where it was dropped.

______

Charles retired to his modest cabin shortly after dusk, which resided about a half-mile from the temple he maintained, near the woodland’s edge. He had access to a short list of luxuries, including a bed, stove and washtub, and a few dips into his well prepared his bath and supplied water for cooking. A traveling ice mage has blessed his freezer for a substantial price, but now he could keep stores of meat through the long summer months. After a meal of baked venison strips and rice, he lit the evening candles before donning his robe, and from afar his cabin windows would glow like a firedrake’s eyes.

He knelt upon his haunches and began to lift the thatched rug in the small living area of his cabin, leaning it against a wall once it had been rolled tight. A basement door could now be seen, no longer hidden away from prying eyes. Once opened, a short staircase was discernible through a blanket of shadow, and Charles descended into what might have originally been intended to serve as a small wine cellar… though its purpose now certainly did not involve anything recreational.

A wall torch was lit, revealing a dummy mannequin in a nearby corner not unlike a scarecrow’s torso. Shelves of jars and other containers were also seen jutting from each wall, offering a selection of translucent liquids, dried herbs and granulated powders. Situated in the middle of the cellar was a wooden table with vials and beakers, a small burner plate, and instruments for grinding and mixing. A copy of the forbidden text The Obsolescence of Magic was opened to an anatomical illustration of a robed sorceress and her various magical chakras.

On the far end of the table could have been the most damning article. A pamphlet with the insignia of the eastern mute resistance was peeking from its rectangular envelope, handed to him by a blind mute on a street corner begging for money. His rare business excursion to the city of Balthas had supplied him with sobering insight, and new heights of determination.

After a sweeping glance of his handiwork, Charles seemed to immediately pick up where he left off in his laboratory. He pulled the feathery weed plucked earlier in the day from his pocket and placed it upon his table. A powdery concoction from his prior night’s experimentations had proved itself a promising lead.

Placing the weed upon a thin bed of the powder, its vibrant hues immediately dulled alongside withering tendrils, before pulsing back to its original state. Charles could sense as well as see the magic being neutralized, if only temporarily, but its essence remained resolute and overcame its aggressor.

There’s something here… Charles thought with conviction. Something potent.

Several hours passed with mixing and stirring, testing and observing. It seemed his progress had plateaued, frustrating him to the point of a punch upon his watchful mannequin, until he was reminded of a rare find he purchased from an herbal shop in Balthas, the secreted oil of the eschew plant. He added a few drops to his original formula, spread it thin with a knife and settled the weed upon it once more.

This time the weed’s reaction was alarmingly conclusive. It actually shriveled to a crisp, graying to the point of visual finality. Charles locked his eyes upon it, expecting an eventual rebound, but none would come.

Gods… Charles swallowed hard upon the sight after several minutes has passed, his thoughts heavy and swirling.

A large batch was made with his remaining ingredients and hidden away in a glass container. He would set aside a small amount to place within a leather pouch, which he pocketed for later use.

“Tomorrow,” Charles said aloud to himself before climbing the wooden planks back to his cabin to retire for the evening.

______

The sun eventually rose, as it always did. Charles was already awake and finishing his rounds across the temple as visitors assembled themselves once more. Eventually and discreetly, he lost himself from the pack of eyes behind the trunk of a large yarka tree, seemingly forgotten by Aria’s flock.

The children from the prior day eventually began to roam and play, eyed carefully by Charles with brief glimpses from his hiding place. He waited until a nearby elven child experimented with a flame spell between the cup of her hands, looking upon her success with awe and satisfaction. The small leather bag was fetched from his pocket, and a small mound of his concoction was placed onto the palm of his hand. A measured breath then preceded a deep exhale of the spore-like powder towards the unsuspecting girl. The substance seemed to dissolve into a barely discernible cloud, carried by faint winds towards its target.

The child’s flame began to flicker and wane with an obvious struggle until it finally extinguished, with only a thin trail of smoke honoring its prior existence. A look of horror lifted to the child’s face before her spell was once again attempted, chanting the sacred words carefully, but only earned a small puff of combustion upon her palms. A panicked roam of the child’s eyes yanked the caretaker back into hiding, and he would only hear the child screaming and running to find her parents.

Charles witnessed his experiment with fascination that bordered on outright horror. After the elven girl fled, there was a heavy moment of realization before his breaths began to quicken, and his sense of balance began to tilt…

A panic attack… this must be a panic attack, he repeated in his mind, and tempered his breaths with deep exhales to curb the tide of spasms that shuddered across his limbs. He then found his way back to his cabin, taking care not to be noticed, though in the corner of his eye the noble family with the curious servant woman lingered…

Charles would not be seen outside for the remainder of the day. He sat silently for hours on his bed with the pamphlet in his hand, dwelling on the ramifications of his discovery, until a knock on his cabin door accompanied the arrival of dusk.

A frenzied look rose to Charles’ face as he hurriedly tucked away the pamphlet into the pocket of his overalls. He then reached for a small dagger hidden underneath his mattress before tending to his late visitor.

The Hellhunter & the Demoness

“If you are to betray me,” The HellHunter warned the demoness, “kill me quickly, or you shall suffer the same.”

______

The Forsaken Temple was eventually found in a distant marsh far from the empire’s borders, even after so many shamans insisted it resided beyond the mortal plane. Upon the wide, unwalled bed of bones were statues of kneeling gargoyles, spewing sulfuric wind from their maniacally grinning mouths, seated upon columns gouged with the claw marks of the damned. A series of archways jutting out of the putrid swampland stew resembled the ribbed remains from some ancient leviathan. A slit of setting sun peeked through clusters of rotting trees in the distance, hanging in perpetual dusk. The Demono Wrathos manifested itself when the HellHunter beckoned its name, and a fierce battle commenced.

A steel sword was driven upwards into the demon’s throat by relentless hands, shredding through the larynx with the sound of a slow, snapping tree branch. It staggered back, yanking the hilt from the HellHunter’s grasp as shock overwhelmed its ferocity, and oily fluid began to pool along the lids of its eyes and dribble from its nostrils. The monster’s mouth opened wide in a gesture that seemed reflexive, gurgling a blood-choked roar before its wobbling knees collapsed. Heavy stone armor cracked against the skeletal floor beneath it, clattering with the spasms of quietus, until it became as lifeless as the beast it failed to protect. A large silver medallion with strange markings was the trophy he sought, and the battered warrior snatched it from the demon’s bulging neck with an exhale of triumph.

The medallion was pocketed before the HellHunter gazed upon the slain Demono Wrathos with a wave of consummate relief, his breaths still heavy with exhaustion. Its massive frame had to be twenty lengths or taller, with an ox-like face and searing red eyes that glowed inexorably, even in death. The audience of taunting demon soldiers had disappeared, apparently swept away by the winds of defeat. Were they truly there? he thought as he unsheathed his sword and shouted his battle cry. The Forsaken Temple was fraught with lies for the eyes and ears of intruders, but its guardian was now slain, apparently taking its powers of deceit along with it.

His fatal strike was admittedly lucky, but expected all the same; seven other demon lords were felled in necessary triumphs to set the current stage of battle. Ultimate victory was proving itself a natural consequence of the HellHunter’s momentum, it seemed. He had carved through hordes of hellions and rejected the temptations of euphoric delights offered from a plane of pleasure too incomprehensible for mortal minds, if he would only forfeit his quest. And now, the final Hellgate beckoned, promised by ancient prophesy to surrender its cursed seal before the gathering of the eight pendants, somewhere on the edge of the Great Earth.

Silence had settled like dust around the HellHunter until it was abruptly broken. “Mine kill was stolen,” came the snarl of a voice through the thickening black of the temple’s shadows. The warrior tensed and turned his head towards the growl, eyes widened with a peculiar blend of concern and relief. Despite the familiarity, the warrior was never truly comfortable with the demoness…

The black seemed to peel away from a woman as she stepped forward, glowing a fluorescent violet from her face and striking, amethyst eyes. Two small horns jutted from top of her brow, curtained by raven-feathered hair that blended like mist into the darkness around it. An elegant drape of skin just below her chin suggested a well-nourished regality, punctuated by a crown of thorns above her head, floating like a halo. Her leather armor was the color of dried blood and hugged tightly against her skin, with prominent straps around her gloves, boots, neckline, and midsection. A metallic plate on her chest flaunted the symbol of the Cross’ed; both holy and unholy with its pair of crosspieces. Her left wrist revealed the tattooed insignia of a demon huntress to those few in the world who recognized it.

Shiva’ra eyes glared their blame towards the HellHunter, who carried the mortal name of Charles Morschew. He was tall, somewhere between six and seven lengths, his olive skin rugged and calloused from countless battles and wounds. The look in his charcoal eyes wavered between fierce determination and thoughtful observance, as if his enduring battle against evil had split his demeanor into two distinct halves. He was the chosen paladin of a warrior tribe long thought extinct, trained by the Golden Knight’s Order and tutored in alchemy. His armor was the color of scuffed silver, with flaking green and red stripes boasting the empire’s royal colors. His face was almost handsome, with a number of scars traveling along his squared jawline, and one across his right eye pulling into his dark, wavy hair.

“I beg your pardon, Shiva’ra the Betrayer,” Charles lifted from his lips, his forehead dipping almost reverently. “My convictions gave way to impatience, and I’ve robbed you of what was rightfully yours.”

Shiva’ra the Betrayer. The demoness didn’t mind the title, and in fact insisted upon it. She made no secret of the contempt she held towards her brethren, declaring it to the HellHunter who felt the tip of her blade against his neck before their uneasy allegiance. Demons had relinquished their might amidst mortal indulgences, she observed wearily… making them weak, conquerable, and subject to the whims of fate. Looking upon it now, her concern might as well have been prophesy, as only the Christ of Demons remained of the demon lords that once reigned upon the Great Earth.

“Indeed you did,” Shiva’ra stoutly accused, but her voice had softened. Charles presented the medallion as consolation, dangling it from his forefinger before clenching it into his palm. He tried a smile towards his companion, earning none in return, before noticing something strange upon his fingertips… the sight of charred flesh, crawling and consuming his skin. He violently shook his hand to no avail and the look of panic began to seep into his eyes.

Shiva’ra approached Charles to address the creeping plague, taking his hand into hers to study it. After a moment her voice became motherly, almost a coo. “Charles,” she explained with concern. “You’ve been cursed. Let me see if I can—”

The sudden swipe of an enormous arm sent Charles careening towards a grinning gargoyle, gouging his arm with a stone claw before he tumbled into a heap. The Demono Wrathos had somehow risen from its resting place, wrenching the instrument of death from its neck before a thunderous roar shook the temple’s foundation with horrifying resonance. Shiva’ra had already engaged the risen demon lord with her dagger, and the medallion was just out of reach from Charles’ trembling hand before his mind was swallowed by blackness.

______

There were dreams, of course, full of wonder and meaning. Visions of what has been and could be, glimpses of lives lived and yet to come…

Charlemagne’s pulse rifle was slung over his left shoulder as he stood resolutely on a slanted concrete slab. Sheila’s head was buried into his chest, and he felt the wetness of tears through his black siphon battlesuit. His right hand wore the glove that was generating the energy field around them, criss-crossing lines of bright cyan much like an electric net, ballooned into a protective sphere. Charlemagne’s vivid green eyes observed the bursts of orange and black through the vivid blue mesh, and warm reflections flashed against his placid face.

“Easy, easy,” he whispered in an effort to console the frightened young woman leaning against him. “We’re protected here, we’re fine.”

He had found Shiela in a building long abandoned within Zone 27, and had little time to explain that the evols were coming,… coming fast, those damned souls that had been subjected to the Liquid Evolution. Floating naked through the air like flesh-colored silhouettes, no discernable features on their hellish blank faces, their digits fused together into large, useless nubs… Their attacks came from their minds, as frightening as the prospect was. Spontaneous explosions spurred on with a thought that leveled cities from above with horrifying efficiency… traveling like massive fiery centipedes across streets and corridors… burning fiercely for hours or even days.

Sheila and Charlemagne were caught in one of those attacks, and Charlemagne had activated his pulse shield just in time… for what? The evols would most certainly conduct a grid search after their initial attack, and there were not many places to hide in the rubble that stretched for miles around them. He could maybe take one head on, if he was lucky and his aim was true… but there were at least five roaming around, as detected by his perimeter scanner. He wasn’t sure what to do, and his platoon wasn’t responding to his beacon… perhaps they were conducting their own defensive maneuvers, or perhaps they were simply wiped out.

The situation seemed bleak, but Charlemagne wouldn’t tell Sheila that, at least not yet…

______

Charles awoke, but his eyes did not open, a warrior’s habit trained into him as a young boy. Crickets and frogs sang a night’s chorus around him with chattery chirps and swollen hiccups, and he felt the warmth of flame from a campfire nearby. As his senses collected further from the depths of sleep, he took notice of his left arm in a sling and the feeling of hay on his back, his armor absent while he lay upon the musty dampness of earth. His good hand fidgeted with the remnants of his dream, and for the briefest moment a trail of cyan energy pulsed from its fingertips.

Through the floating, glowing embers a pair of watchful eyes could be seen, the color of sparkling amethyst. Charles couldn’t help but stir at the stare he somehow felt through his still-groggy mind.

“You’re finally awake,” Shiva’ra stated flatly.

“Yes indeed,” Charles acknowledged with a dusty throat. “What a wonder that I’m still alive.”

“I killed it, once and for all,” Shiva’ra declared to quell the question yet to be asked. And don’t you ever steal another kill from me again, came the unspoken words alongside her tone. The sound of a jangle settled Charles’ mind about the medallion as well.

“Very good, very good. We have what we need for the final battle ahead. Thank you for your help, Shiva’ra, and for the lovely campfire.”

A wordless welcome filled the embered air between them before Shiva’ra spoke again. “A cleric came and went while you were asleep to rid you of your curse. I managed to set your arm as well… hopefully the cleric’s blessing speeds it along.” Her mention of it seemed to activate Charles’ mind to the pain and swelling, and his shoulder twitched with a deep, dull ache.

“A cleric and demoness with peace between them?” Charles mused aloud. “What a sight that would have been. A pity I missed it.”

Shiva’ra snorted with a sort of shallow contempt. Her lips readied a retort before being interrupted by another thought from the wounded warrior.

“Our crusade is almost complete, dear huntress. We’ve earned together a lifetime’s worth of rest, have we not?”

The remark evidently stirred something within Shiva’ra, prompting her to stand from her seat and move towards the HellHunter, his body exposed and vulnerable, wearing a peasant’s plaincloth. She kneeled to straddle him with knees and palms in hay and dirt, rocking a bit on his loins in an effort to rouse him, but only earned a grimace.

“Easy, easy…” Charles winced alongside a jagged smile, winking one eye open upon the demoness pressing her claim upon his lap. “Your warmth is always appreciated, but my body still aches, so it does.”

Shiva’ra curled her own soft, curious smile. Easy, easy. Charles seemed to always pull odd new expressions from his dreams, a phenomenon of which she had long grown accustomed.

“What say will happen after our task is done?” Shiva’ra posed with a sing-songiness to her voice, equally innocent and sultry. “How shall we live?”

Charles seemed to muse on the on the hopeful eventuality for a long moment. “I suppose our duties would shift towards rekindling the Great Earth with children,” he offered with a slight shrug of his shoulders.

“Children!” Shiva’ra sounded genuinely excited and flattered at the proposition, almost squealing. Her rocking thighs were less provocative now and more mindful of Charles’ ailing soreness.

The heart in Charles’ chest thumped its own cautious longing at the prospect. Shiva’ra really was quite beautiful, horns and all, a fact he often blotted from his own eyes out of necessity. Perhaps his seed wouldn’t or couldn’t take within her womb; he was a mere mortal courting an otherworldly demoness, after all. But Shiva’ra’s enthusiasm to try was enough to add another fiery incentive to the drive already branded onto his soul by oath and fate.

“First thing’s first,” Charles proclaimed, pulling another of those peculiar phrases from some forgotten time. “The Christ of Demons.”

Shira’na’s amethyst eyes flared at the name said aloud, her body stiffening. “The Christ of Demons,” she whispered back.

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