Vibrant lilac and amber orange soared across the evening sky, a dusty scattering of wispy clouds smudged against ancient hues of rose-red, orchid-blue, and violent bursts of violet, stretching like fingers over the ashen grays clasping to the edges of the earth’s hemisphere, while a deep darkness settling over the horizon waiting to swallow the sunset and bring on the starry night. Purple, purple like twilight, like the indigo bands of a rainbow, or the face of the new moon during a total solar eclipse. Purple like Kepler, like amethysts, like lolite, sapphire, jasper, and tourmaline. Such gemstones twinkled and gleamed from their rocky perches in the clefs and rigs of General Xoveon’s plated backside, a stem of expensive jewels clinging to his muscular form and jutting out at his broad shoulders and around his neck. Shiny, sharp, sculpted gems caught the orange glow of the earth’s setting sun and sent refractions of light bouncing off of the dark suits of the Xux’ite guards’ armor. They were savagely beautiful, illuminated in the vivid rays streaming in through the wide glass windows which revealed the barren earth below.
Teeth's attention was abruptly torn from the colorful array of gemstones, that glamorous collection of wealth studding the tall, heavily plated man, to the dingy assembly of tattered huts and tents inside the tall tan walled enclosure they were descending upon. Teeth adjusted his hold on his blaster, a comfortable weight in his hands pressed firmly against the grips of his covered fingers. Earth. Dressed in dead foliage and toxic waste, where black forms of desecrated mountains rose from the flat ground, draped in shades of fantasy rose and silver, gleaming under the heavy weight of the earth’s closest star—the sun. The tops of must-colored roofs curved outward against the sandy plateau of the cracked, dry ground offering no contrast, a flavorless, desolate attempt at civilization. But no, not civilization. It was a camp, one of few littering the earth, a once-thriving population of humans reduced to a mere fraction of survivors herded into encampments and forced to give their years away to the dark crevices of the earth’s charred interior. Poor bastards.
The Xux’ite transport ship rocked as it slowed, the mechanical whirring of engines and the steady whoosh of blasters shooting out to slow the impact of the mogrum-metal spaceship. Teeth joined a cluster of identically armored guards standing near the door, ready to escort the appointed general on his bi-annual visit to each of earth’s thirteen work sites. He shook off his apprehension and let his mind go into auto-pilot. There would be no benefit to him behaving like a giddy child on what was to be his first trip to his ancestor’s home planet. Earth hadn’t belonged to the humans in many decades—not yet a hundred years, but nearing that amount of time, and far too long for Teeth to have been born there. He counted himself fortunate to have been born on Lumania, a planet where, while humans lived in similar harsh conditions, they were at least afforded the opportunity to join the Xux’ite military as lesser ranking soldiers as an alternative, and were generally regarded as “better humans”. Those remaining on earth had a stigma of being troublesome, prideful, rebel-rousers.
It had been in the earth year 2064 aliens had been discovered. Or rather, the Xux’ite race had discovered earth. The human race had fought valiantly, to their credit, but were ultimately decimated by their own nuclear technology. Roughly half of the surviving population had been taken off-planet to support and assist off-planet mining operations in Lumania and in other sectors, and the other half had been made to remain on earth to harvest rare metals—such as gold, aluminum, and carbon composites.
The ship landed. The heavy metal doors gshhh’d open. The first line of soldiers, helms and visors adorned, filed out. General Xoveon, in all of his glittering glory, sauntered out of the ship followed by several other Xux’ite officials and advisors. The golden polycarbonate visor attached to his helmet shielded Teeth's eyes from the sun, setting as it was, he was aware that the sun’s rays on earth were stronger than Lumania’s own sun. On the de-briefing they’d been instructed not to look directly at it. So instead, Teeth focused his eyes again on the general, mindful of his position while walking in file with a grouping of soldiers, identical in both outfit and movement, but not overly conscious of it. They descended the ramp and set foot on the coarse soil of the earth. Again, Teeth refrained from allowing himself any internal exclamation or epiphany to his first steps on planet earth. There would be time to process all of this later. For now, he needed to be a machine. With no thoughts. And no epiphanies.
They passed beneath the first gate and then entered through the second, large iron grates lifting slowly and dropping heavily behind them. There were about forty soldiers, ten officials, and then the general himself making up their entourage. As they passed into the camp Teeth resisted looking too closely at the humans gathered to watch the assembly. In their tattered clothes clinging to their bony bodies. It reminded him of Lumania, vaguely, but only in technicality. This place was totally different. The people here had a meaner look about them by first glance. Teeth was rarely nervous. But he was nervous now. So he kept his eyes averted to avoid meeting the gaze of any ill-intending prisoners. They were prisoners. They would not spare him, half-human or not. It irked him to imagine with what enthusiasm they would tear him, or any of the other soldiers present limb from limb. Hadn’t he once had those same thoughts? He shivered. Earth was cold. The kind of cold even Neoprene-coated nylon couldn’t ward off.
For a second, he thought he saw a flash of color among the bleak, dirt-ridden faces. Something bright, something reddish. But then it was gone. It had Teeth peering, straining his eyes, swiveling his head this way and that with such urgency he nearly bumped into the guard in front of him. They had stopped. The general was climbing the wooden podium erected in the center of the camp in preparation for the speech he was about to administer to the “hard-working miners loyal to the Xux’ite throne”. Teeth assumed his position near one of the corners below the stage, rifle against chest, watching over the crowd of hardened faces staring at the glittering warlord with contempt. Teeth couldn’t blame them. They were a people without power. They were born on this dead rock. They lived in turmoil. And they would die in suffering. He only hoped, selfishly, that they had the good sense to restrain themselves from unleashing their anger on General Xoveon today. So much as a thrown stone could turn bloody. And Teeth was trying to enjoy his first (and likely only) day on earth.
Wrecket Sector 7, was a girl good at hating things with all her guts.
For someone who had grown up far and removed from what earth had once looked like, Wrecket, commonly known by Ket, felt like its sole defender at times. The world around her was beaten down and lifeless. The humans aside her roamed the earth like bodies without souls. The dirt beneath them, barren. Mindless, defeated, slaves. And yet, Ket lived her life with a chest full of smoke and a gaze full of life. Born aflame, invigorated and eager, with the shock of red hair to match, she learned quickly as a child what brought the cruel hand of the Xux'its down on her and her lifeblood. She learned quickly, and she thrived equally. Somehow, she did not quit. She tied this fire to her idea of what earth should have been, and fought tooth and nail against anyone who said otherwise. Her mother told stories. Of green grass, of fresh air, of little things called flowers that bloomed in spring and wilted in winter. They had sparked such a joy within her as a child that no beating, no punishment could knock this dream out of her.
And more than the way that the world had once looked, Ket wanted to see life in the people. Most looked at her like trouble, like a witch of some sort. How can this girl still possibly be fighting? She spat in the face of any Xux'ite who gave her the opportunity. Came back from every day in the hole with a strange smirk on her face, like she'd enjoyed the thought, but it wouldn't work. She'd come back with more fire. More stories. Her mother often worried she'd raised a child doomed to die. But Ket seemed incapable of the feat. Whatever pain she wrought, she wore the scar like a prize. She'd rally whoever would listen around the dinner table and cry a battle cry that no one would heed. But her time for war would come, even if all those around her wanted desperately for anything but. They could not avoid it when a mouth like Ket's existed in their presence.
Wrecket Sector 7 had an older brother. Craine. He was something of a figurehead to the people. Calm, strong, chin out, stance sturdy. Where Ket could take a beating and come out grinning, Craine came out with a cool look in his eye, a look that showed he was not invigorated, but nor was he rattled. In the same way, the Sector 7 siblings had similar iron wills, but stoked their strength with varying levels of fire. Craine's, steady and even. Ket's, wild and unmanageable. Craine gave aid to whomever whenever he could. Ket caused trouble to keep the target away from those who couldn't handle it. Their methods, although starkly different, worked in tandem. They wanted good. And it was through this want that Ket finally managed to get her way, and coax Craine into a devilish plan.
A Hail Mary, her father called it. She liked the sentence. He said it with a certain weight she couldn't understand, but appreciate. A weight of the past. Ket liked the idea of the past and all its boundless knowledge, endless inventions, and tantalizing freedom. She wanted to put that past in their future. If Ket held a rally, most would scorn her, for following Ket into battle would surely be death, even behind the undying girl. But when it came from Craine's tongue, the people's curiosity had stirred, enough to earn them just a small troupe of people restless enough to do one crazy thing. Their opportunity was coming,
Dimly, she did wonder why Craine would ever agree. Many years her elder, he always seemed to weigh heavy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Even in childhood, he took every blow personally, like it was his fault that they were nothing but cogs in a galactic machine. Lately, his posture was ever rigid, but his blue eyes had become soft with an emotion Ket herself had never yet experienced. Weariness. She had always known Craine to be an unwavering presence, and to those who didn't know him like she did, there would be no difference. He acted as normal, even busier than normal. But something had seemed to chip away at his soul, and Ket took this weakness for a chance to show him how they could be strong.
They had amassed a small gang of able bodied men and women. They had formed a plan. They knew their opportunity was coming in the form of the bi-annual visit. An opportunity to show that earth was not defeated, and the flame could not be extinguished. Hopefully the others would rally at the sight of their rebellion. A flame would be lit, word would travel. The fight might be extinguished here but the story would carry on and ignite somewhere else. Ket was prepared to fight for that cause. Die for that cause, even though she felt impenetrable. The secret ingredient, other than Craine's participation, was the little matchbook she had found in the dust and saved for a special day just like this. And it had finally come.
The uniform footsteps of the guard felt very in the distance for Wrecket. Everything was swallowed in a pocket and placed behind her, and the only thing she heard was the own thumping of her heart, the matchstick in her hands, the cloth in the other. She snaked through the crowd with ease, her smaller stature and lithe form perfect to dash undetected, save for that shock of red atop her head. Kindly, the podium was wood. Her tongue flicked between her teeth like a predator eager for prey. Ket was to give the signal. She was to give it. Not Craine. Her. Whatever General Xoveon was saying, whatever noise his perfect stony faced army made, none of it mattered. The speech occurred like a backdrop to her swift movement.
"Loyal miners to the Xux'ite throne, we visit today to commend your honorable work and calculate the output of..."
Her breath felt tight in her throat. She was holding it.
"Your geode output was impressively increased from last year but comparatively to other Sectors could be improved in certain..."
Thump. Thump. Thump. Her heartbeat gave the General's words rhythm.
"Due to the impressive output we will supply a 1.2% increase in rations..."
She lit the match.
"FOR EARTH!" Ket roared, a sudden sea of slouched slaves parting in her wake. She raised the burning cloth and threw it at the general's feet, where fire erupted. Other flaming cloths flew onto the podium, lighting stretches of the wood. Chaos exploded. Some immediately tried to run for cover, away from the fight that would surely break out. Ket and Craine's gang of slaves threw as much fire as they could, the little matchbook having been spread among them, passed among hands like the madness had surely spread. Ket, now brandishing a dagger of sharpened rock she had whittled away at day after day, clambered right for the general himself, screaming Hail Mary. This, of course, was not exactly part of the plan, and Craine, from his vantage in the back, went wide eyed as he watched his sister dive into the one possibility that would murder her on the spot.
"KET!" Craine shouted, as he attempted to dive after her, in hopes of stopping her before she made contact. But Ket did not, would not hear, and Ket did not fear death. She feared a life that looked like this any longer.
Teeth didn’t have many aspirations in life. He didn’t ask for much. He didn’t think he was particularly selfish. He helped others when he could. He was just a simple soldier for a multi-global space empire, a lowly one in a mass of hundreds of millions. He had no family left to worry about, but he had a lot to be grateful for. He hoped that there was a cosmic balance between good and bad, where good people would be rewarded for their good deeds and bad people punished for their wrongs. He thought, all things considered, he was a good person. Couldn’t he hope for a little reward?
And then the potassium chlorate struck phosphorus. Teeth’s body reacted before his mind had realized what was happening, immediate action drilled into his muscles like a fresh instinct, he lifted his rifle. His heart was racing, his breath warm within the confines of the mask obscuring his face that was part of his helmet. Vision circled in on one figure, a shock of turbulent, violent red streaking through the crowd and toward the stage where fire had erupted.
The Augmented Pulse Phaser Rifle is a high-performance Xux’ite military-grade weapon which utilizes a highly collimated beam to produce a non-lethal but incapacitating laser used for disabling and neutralizing living targets. The gun is also equipped with a non-lethal but intense concentration of directed radiation to emit a flash of blindless which can impair robotic sensors or human vision. If Teeth needed to kill someone, he’d draw the Gatling Gun on his hip and shoot a bullet. A zirconium bullet behind the mechanics of a 12.7mm barrel would send a burning hole through most forms of metal plating and make-shift armor. For close combat he had a curved knife made from a tebralt-tungsten alloy. And various other weapons concealed across his person.
He shot her. In the back, less than twenty paces away. With the Phaser Rifle.
The girl’s knife fell away inches from its mark. General Xoveon’s head swiveled to make eye-contact with him, his expression stony and unreadable, but Teeth could’ve sworn he saw a glint of surprise in the monstrous creature’s beady eyes. Realization and horror dawned on Teeth as the general’s massive body turned, and he saw in the man’s three-taloned grip a quivering slave, dangling, head trapped in General Xoveon’s claws. General Xoveon had been too preoccupied to notice the girl, three seconds more and she could’ve gotten a good slash in. Teeth’s jaw tensed. Xoveon’s jaw unhinged. And he unceremoniously, suddenly and violently, forced the man’s head between his teeth and snapped down. A horrifying silence broken by a hollow crack, and a spewing splatter of blood on the burning podium. A few screams quickly quieted by a succession of gunfire. General Xoveon hurled the broken body into the crowd, which cowered away from the man with the broken head.
General Xoveon turned his four gleaming eyes toward the girl beside him on the stage, reaching out to pick her up in the same manner. Teeth’s stomach dropped. Somehow his legs carried him forward. He had to stop. His gun slung over his back; he crossed the stage. He was going to get killed for this. All his life he’d done as he was told. And now it was like he was moving without his own consent. Some deep, forsaken impulse raging through his body, forcing his legs to take him forward.
“General Xoveon.” His voice sounded robotic, and strong as he addressed his leader, sounding nothing like the inner turmoil he felt. General Xoveon’s irking gaze trailed down to the young soldier standing before him. Blood dribbled between the rock-like ridges in Xoveon’s alien face. Blood, dark and draining, spinning and splattering on the burning stage beneath them.
“You.” Xoveon’s voice was a rumbling croak, a rasp from hell, a choking gurgle from Tartarus translated into a human tongue. “Mutt.”
Teeth’s blood ran cold. It felt like somebody had poured cold water down the back of his spine. He hoped he wasn’t visibly trembling. Some part of him had hoped Xoveon couldn’t tell who he was. He was now completely out of line. The other Xuxi’ites on the stage were looking at him, some hungry, some maybe sorry for him, most just perturbed and angry. Xoveon slowly placed the girl back on the ground, taloned toes clacking and cracking the burnt wooden planks beneath him as he closed the distance between them, hand outstretched toward Teeth’s helmed head.
Teeth squeezed his eyes shut. This was it. This was the end. At least he’d been able to see Earth this one time. At least he wouldn’t die alone in space. At least he didn’t have any family to regret not returning to. He closed his eyes and he waited for death to come.
But it didn’t come. A weight settled on his head. General Xoveon was… patting his head. Accompanied by a coo of praise. It was so quiet he almost missed it. Had he hallucinated it? No, General Xoveon had addressed him. “Gooddog.” How dehumanizing. The half-breed had fulfilled his loyal duty to protect his alien overlord. Good dog. It was warranted. But it didn't feel good.
Teeth didn’t move. He waited until General Xoveon had withdrawn begin to parade his way off the stage proclaiming his speech like he’d won some victory. “Earthlings, humans,” He bellowed, cloak floating behind him, and his advisors and lower ranking officials behind that. “This concludes… your bi-annual evaluation.” One of the Xux’ite officers picked up the red-headed girl and tossed her over his shoulder. One man in the crowd couldn’t hold his peace. He kept shouting. A name, or a plea. Xoveon continued, “Our analysts have concluded that your performance this year has been well below our most modest expectations…” He sauntered around the left of the crowd, making his way toward the gates. The man who couldn’t hold his peace had pushed his way to the front. Two guards blocked his path. “Upon further decree, administration has decided to terminate your existing accounts.” General Xoveon half-turned toward the shamble of a crowd, raising one hand and then curling bloodied fingers into a fist. “Rejoice. General Xoveon has heard your pleas and you will all be released.” And then he turned away, waving a signal to his soldiers. “Kill them all.”
The soldiers began firing bullets into the crowd. Teeth felt a hand steering him away, but he couldn’t pry his eyes from the sight of bursts of blood and crumpling bodies. There was a scuffle, a fight. But it didn’t last long. The man in the front who hadn’t held his peace, the butt of a rifle connected with his head and he went limp. Teeth felt a churning in his stomach. He’d just saved a monster. The look in Xoveon’s rhinestone eyes. What had he done? Three seconds more and wouldn’t the girl have been quick enough? But—would it have made a difference? He’d just saved a monster. He’d just saved the life of a monster. He’d just… he’d just.
He didn’t stop staring until the metal doors of the transport ship closed shut. But the stench of blood lingered in the ventilation of his armor.
Wrecket had imagined a slightly more honorable defeat than being shot in the back.
Truthfully, if it had meant she got a good stab or two on the general, she wouldn't have minded being between his gaping maw, at least, less so than dropping from a zap by one of his millions of disciples. Not exactly a warrior's goodbye. She could hear Craine screaming her name in the background, but it blended just as much with the rest of the chaos that erupted immediately. It all became a sweet symphony in Ket's mind, and the scene before her was a perfect painting. Streaks of flame among the bleak dirt, causing reflections to dance in the gemstones that speckled the general's body. People ran, sure, but some burst forth. Some tried. That was more than she could have asked for, from a race of beaten down slaves. A burst of war that she had waited to hear all her life ended within seconds. No fair, really. But this life was anything but fair, and Ket had accepted that long ago. Or rather, refused to accept it long ago.
She was so close, too. The dagger of her own design had just nearly met its mark. She spent hours under the moon, hidden in the dark of what was supposed to be their designated resting time whittling away, day after day. Salivating over the chance to be anything more than another turning gear. Dreaming of the freedom, the power, the triumph. Dreaming of the way her family would look if they weren't beaten down every day by whips and chains, scraped by the sharp ridges of the geodes in the caverns, their skin shredded, their hopes squandered. Ket wore a little chipped piece of crystal around her neck as a reminder, an anchor. She wore it with the foolish dream of one day showing a generation that knew not of their plight, and telling them where she had earned all her scars. Bending to the whim of those greater than her, until they weren't.
Except in this moment, unfortunately, they still were. The laser hit her back, and Ket buckled. Her jagged, beloved, clunky stone dagger fell out of her hands and she fell to the ground like a piece of mince meat. As General Xoveon continued his snack, the blood of the poor man splattered onto her, painting her a new shade of red unlike her shock of hair. She twitched. She could not crane her chin to look upward, but just as quick as the lifeless body was slung away, she could feel the hulking presence of the General over her. Ah, so here was the gruesome death she had prepared for. She'd felt the hot breath of the Xux'ites boring down on her before. None had ever tried to shove her head in their mouth, but she figured it would happen sooner or later. In a way, Xoveon's presence over her felt like a glittering cavernous ceiling. She had spent most of her life wedged into tiny openings, her small stature throwing her into the most claustrophobic of cavities, serrating her skin, leaving her in the dark, sparkling quiet. As Xoven loomed over her, she felt very small all over again, a child made to work in the most out of reach places, finally meeting her end in the starlight she had been born under.
There was a shout that pierced the cacophony. General Xoveon paused, turned, and moved away. Ket felt breath enter her lungs. She strained her neck up to see something, anything then the flaming wood beneath her. She could see nothing but the silvery boots of a run of the mill soldier. Bile rose in her throat. Good dog, she heard the general say. Yeah, she wanted to spit. Good fucking dog. But all Ket could do was writhe on the ground like a rotten worm, and she supposed in the grand scheme of things, that was what she was. A ballsy worm, certainly, but nothing more but a speck of dirt on General Xoveon's foot. At least she had been something, Ket said to herself over and over. At least she had been something.
Bullets rained. She heard her name again, again, and again, until she didn't. At least I was something. A mass murderer? A slaughterer of innocents? No more than the Xux'ites. Maybe she had saved them from living a life of hell and anguish any longer. Maybe they should thank her. Maybe they should have listened. Maybe if they'd all fought, every single one of them, they could have done something. Been something. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe if the good dog hadn't barked, her dagger would have found purchase, and she would have been the human who had not given in.
Ket decided that if she lived, the good dog would be found, and found dead.
Her body was lifted like a feather and thrown onto a shoulder. If she could have, she would have kicked and screamed. The soldier who she now rode upon turned, and she could see nothing but a sea of bodies. Her bright blue eyes were wild and wide, memorizing the scene, imprinting it onto her heart, unable to make out a single face but knowing that she knew every single one of them, clambered in the caves with every single one of them, and had finally watched them all drop like flies in one fell swoop. She had not yet decided if she wanted to bare it like a curse or treat herself like a blessing. A grueling life, gone in an instant. If it had been this easy to end it all in a burst of flame, maybe Ket would have done it sooner. Why did Craine let her?
She tried to strain to see his body, but they all looked the same. They all were the same. Dirty, degraded, worthless. Dead. She could lift her head just barely as the doors to their transport ship slid closed, and it dawned on Ket that for the first time in her life, a life spent watching these ships circle to and fro around her homeland, she was inside. The floor, which she had the best view of, was stainless steel, spotless and unnervingly smooth. The Xux'ites always amazed her with what little of the technology they had exposed her sector too. Their precision was inhuman, rightly so, and that made it easier for Ket to feel like she was fighting robots. Mindless targets, existing only to oppress her people.
Ket decided, as she was flung unceremoniously onto cold metal, a door slammed shut behind her, that she would think about this good dog. This one foolish soldier who had ruined her only chance by a fraction of a second. She was alive, and breathing, and seeing, and what she saw was a new opportunity. To push past the guilt, ignore the truth, ignore the thought that perhaps, she had killed her own family in a moment of reckless bloodlust and orphaned herself on a galactic crusade to torture that would scoff at what little she had already suffered. There was a good dog on this ship, in fact, it was full of them, and she would kill every single last one of them.
Teeth stumbled inside and yanked his helmet from his head. He felt sick, skin clammy and dark hair plastered to his forehead sticky with sweat. He slowed while the rest of the guard filed past, brushing by and knocking plated shoulders with him until their clamoring faded to echoes down the corridor. Teeth’s outstretched arm found a curved metal wall, black gloved fingertips pressing into cool steel while his head dipped forward, the heat in his collar condensing to droplets and soaking into the skin at his throat. He tried to swallow, a tense, taught, tightness knotted in his esophagus, like a rock had gotten lodged on its way down. Sapphire eyes darted back and forth across the ground, a jumble of ironworks intersecting over a mess of machinery, wires, tubes, vents, all zig-zagging and crisscrossing over one another. He let out a series of drawn out breaths, willing his racing heart to cease its rampant thumping, his other hand coming up to hold against his breastplate.
Press it down, press it down. People had died, but that was alright. The ringing in his ears would subside if he would just calm down. The image of the man with the broken head, gushed, split like a melon, slopped and chomped, tossed and then discarded like a cherry pit, it would go away. Reminiscing on these images was unnecessary. It wouldn’t improve his abilities as a soldier. Dwelling could only lead to softness, worry, and a feeling of remorse. Things he didn’t need as a soldier. He called upon apathy, upon blankness, upon indifference. Unwavering, cool, hardened, collected, loyal, dutiful, stern, obedient. Good dog—fuck. Fuck.
“Teeth!” He heard his name and he immediately retracted from the wall, shoving his helmet back onto his head as his feet carried him forward. The voice had come from beyond the hall to the left where another met him at the corner, having been walking briskly from the other direction. “Come on,” Argaves grabbed hold of Teeth’s arm and led him swiftly down the narrow corridor. “We’re taking off. Damn you’re slow.” Argaves was a whole head taller than Teeth, standing at about seven feet. They shared a similarity in being half-human, but Argaves’ humanity was as far as their bond stretched. He dragged Teeth into one of the rooms designated to the soldiers and equipment and shoved him toward one of the benches on the left-facing wall. Teeth fell into a seat and began to strap himself. He fumbled, and the buckle jammed, and he was blinking hard to refocus. He thought he might be sick.
Argaves, only a pace away, removed his helmet and clipped it to the back of his suit before leaning over Teeth and snatching the buckles from him. “Damn,” he grumbled, yanking the straps secure and then dropping into the adjacent seat to strap himself in. Teeth tilted his head back and squeezed his eyes shut. Focusing on his breath was all he could do to keep from throwing up. He had pinpricks all over his body. Heat broiled over his body like liquid. He let his mind find other scabs to pick. It wasn’t difficult. The atrocities he’d been a part of were infinite.
He must have passed out because the next thing he knew he was being shaken awake. Argaves again. “Get up.” Argaves’s hand left his shoulder and then both of the other man’s hands were reaching to undo Teeth’s helm to pry it off. Teeth struggled with the straps holding him to be released while Argaves popped his helmet off. The air in the room was cooler than in his helmet, but the heavy weight on his chest remained making it hard to breathe. “You’ve got two parsa ‘fore Vragul notices you’re slackin’ off.” One parsa was the Xux’ite equivalent of about a minute. “Get moving.”
Teeth made a sound of discontent as he pulled himself out of his seat and clumsily maneuvered his way out of the room and back into the hallway. Feeling dizzy, he hung a left, jelly-legs carrying him to another dimly lit room where a tight group of soldiers gathered around a rectangular table. He peered forward and was startled when a thick gloved hand clapped him over the ear.
“Unbecoming,” Legate Vragul stared down at him with a disapproving look, two of his arms crossed over his chest and the other two resting on his hips. “Tardy. Go, relieve ARK-1091 of his position in the lower deck. An SRC will retrieve you in three x’hora. You will go then to speak to General Karkaph for your sentencing.” An x’hora was the Xux’ite equivalent of about an hour. A sentencing was the Xux’ite equivalent of a punishment. Teeth turned but Legate Vragul caught his shoulder. Teeth looked up at him. “Your helmet, soldier.” Oh. Right.
Teeth put his helmet back on. The initials A-R-K and the numbers 2-3-2-2 printed legibly along the scratched surface.
ARKs were a lower classification of soldier which were able to rise in the ranks. Younger soldiers usually, often promising, almost always half-Xux’ites like Argaves. Soldiers who weren’t immediately inducted into the SRC class like most full-blooded Xux’ites—those who were too inexperienced or low-classed to be generals but too highly to be assigned less valuable work. There was an even lower class below ARKs, a class where those assigned were positioned permanently and unable to rise to a higher rank or advance to another class. Those were ROCs. Those were most typically slaves, those with large debts to the Xux’ite government, or conquered races with an excess population that needed… trimming down. ROCs were sent into the front lines of battle, were assigned the most laborious or lethal tasks, and had the highest mortality rates. Teeth was an ARK soldier by the promotion of a warlord called Uthendrall who had ruled over his home colony on Lumania. Some tangled story of stolen and lost, forbidden romance. And the insinuation that Xux’ites were, in extreme cases, capable of remorse.
Teeth, ARK-2232, wound his way toward the holding cells to relieve a soldier of his position. He looked relieved. And a tick later Teeth saw why. The holding cell which the guard had been positioned in front of was occupied. By a familiar burst of color draped in tattered attire. His chest ached. He couldn’t imagine the turmoil this earth girl must be going through. He pivoted then, facing away from the cell, and clasped his hands behind his back. Better not to think about it. Or anything at all for that matter. Better to be anonymous. Better to be made of stone.
The floor was cold. A strange difference from the ever present cloud of heat that swallowed Earth whole. Her head was dizzy, face hot, but against the cool metal, Ket was able to keep her mind turning. Before facing the prison that was the ship, Ket was first dealing with the lack of control over her own body. Flat against the floor, straining with all her being to find purchase over her own limbs again. Humiliating. But as Ket struggled, grunted, panted, and still found herself, she had no choice but to wrestle with the thing that was truly weighing on her. The reality of her situation.
In less than a minute, she had destroyed the entire civilization she'd ever known. Her parents, her brother, her people. Dead. Sector 7, wiped. Her hideaways, gone, her family's quarters, the crystal caves. The little world that Ket had grown comfortable starting fires in was now fully engulfed, turned to ash. Ket had always stoked the flames inside of her, but Craine, those around her, had kept it from getting out of control. Something had cracked. The dam broke. Fire swept the land, and now she was in the stars, not underneath them. As Ket's mind swirled over the implications of her actions, wondering how much of it was her fault, and how much of it truly had to have happened, she found feeling in her twitching fingertips, buzzing in her legs, and soon enough, Ket was able to lift her head.
A new wave of nausea hit her as Ket rose to her feet. She fell against the side of the cell and bit harshly down on her lip, the taste of iron keeping her upright. It was then that she remembered how the rest of her face was painted red by the poor slave who'd lost his head in the belly of the beast, his brains splattered across the burning podium. She raised a finger to her cheek, and watched it come back bloodied. Ket expected herself to fall then, or maybe bile to fully rise in her throat. But the fear that she felt was dull, perhaps due to the adrenaline that hadn't yet worn off. Why wasn't she more guilty? All she felt was rage, determination. Like she had been waiting all this time to watch it all fall, and now that it was rubble, the decimation was nothing new.
It just hadn't settled in, Ket decided. She'd feel some human emotions later. Raising her chin haughtily and swallowing past the lump in her throat, Ket finally tried to digest her surroundings past her new familiarity with the floor. The cell was small, just barely large enough for her wingspan, and likely only because she was of smaller stature. There was not a divet or a crevice in the reflective walls that gave her any hope for funny business. The only view was between the bars on one side, and a pounding headache kept her vision blurred when she tried to look past the hulking form blocking her view.
Ket paused, gaze traveling upward to soak in the form of the guard posted outside her cell. She looked up, and then she looked down, at his boots. Silvery. Polished. She wished she had made some other note of the wretch who had shot her, but she supposed it didn't matter. They were all the same. All Xux'ite dogs.
Simply put, Ket spent the next hour raising hell as much as she could behind bars. Her hand snaked out to reach anything of the guard's; armor, weapons. He jumped out of reach every time, but didn't do much in the way of threatening her. He must have figured she was harmless, separated by steel, but when he finally grew smart enough to stand a certain amount away from the bars, Ket switched to yowling like a wounded cat. Singing, which turned to coughing, which then turned to counting. She counted every bar, then she counted every weapon on his person, then she thought aloud.
"Say, Bitchy, how many torture devices they got on this ship? Why haven't they started yet? Or am I gonna be a nice little trophy on General Shitface's wall? Dunk me in some cement? Or, maybe you're the torture device? Sure is killing me to talk to someone as fucking brick-walled as you." She ran her mouth for what felt like hours, her mouth dry, her head aching, but refusing to stop. Stopping meant defeat, stopping meant dealing with her own head, and Ket did not want to hear anything but the sound of vile words. Bitchy must have been given orders not to engage, but she could tell he was suffering under her loud mouth. Good. At least she could do something.
Eventually, the tides turned. Another suit of armor came up. At this point, Ket stepped back, away from the bars to allow the exchange of positions to happen silently. Bitchy had been the warm up, and while her head was still swimming, she refused to relent. Her bright blue eyes swallowed up this new figure as much as she could under the armor and helmet that covered his features, and after giving him a good moment to settle into his post, Ket approached.
With what little space she had, she stalked forward, and when she grew close enough, almost flung herself at the bars, trying to create a great clanging that would spook him. She couldn't see his face, but Ket had sensed just the slightest bit of trepidation in his footsteps. She figured they thought humans as savages, barbarians, imbeciles. Ket would show him savage. Without allowing the sound of the reverberating metal to even register, she shot a hand out, hoping to grab any part of him and yank him back with all the force she could muster, whispering low and menacingly beneath her breath.
It was easy to suppress everything, to compartmentalize, to let his logical brain do all of the heavy work. Being a soldier was a taxing, strenuous and physically demanding occupation, but Teeth had always been strong. Not the thickest or the broadest, but quick on his feet and quicker in the heat of hazard. He never allowed himself to ponder the ethics or moral reasoning behind his duty. He’d signed away his individuality, his beliefs, his right to ask questions, all gone when he’d become a soldier in the first place. There was no need now to waste long hours lamenting over what-if’s or could-have’s. It had been this life or a worse one. He couldn’t be blamed for basing his decisions on what would best ensure his survival—it was human nature. And more than that, it was the way things were. It wasn’t his place to question it. He was a tiny cog in a monstrous machine that lived under the ever-present threat of being easily replaced.
But it was the guilt that got him. The feelings of restlessness he couldn’t shake. The visions of desecration and destruction he’d wrought down that returned to him in the darkness. He’d killed lots of people. Probably people that didn’t deserve it. But that didn’t make him bad, right? He didn’t kill those people because he enjoyed it. He did it because he had to. Because he had a gun, and they did not. Because he had the orders, because the order had been approved, because somebody had to pay. Somebody always had to pay. This earth girl, for instance. Her people had to pay for their uprising. For holding onto hope, for clinging to their beliefs, for daring to dream. She had to pay, but she had to pay the most. She’d become a martyr at best. A bleak new product of mind-break at worst. Dead some middle ground between those.
No, it wasn’t difficult to be a soldier. It had been much worse in the camps on Lumania. It had recently dawned on him that he’d likely never set foot on Lumania again. Not since the death of his mother had he had a reason to visit. She’d only passed six xe’min cycles ago. He’d practically departed on this earth venture from the funeral. If funeral could be used to describe the event of his mother’s corpse disposal. Xux’ites believed in compressing their dead at high temperatures until carbon diamonds were formed, and then ritualistically eating those diamonds. In some occasions, a wealthy Xux’ite may have their loyal slaves turned to carbon diamonds upon their passing. Or in his mother’s case, their dearly beloved alien concubines. Delicious!
Teeth wasn’t looking at the girl. He was looking down the hall, listening to the receding paces of the other guard. He wondered how far the next nearest person would be. There wasn’t much but storage and mechanical components on the lower level of the ship. They were about as far from the bustle as one could be, tucked in some far unused corners. As expected from the Xux’ites and their natural incline toward extreme methods of violence, it was rare to have prisoners aboard any transport vessel such as this one, and accordingly the cells were small, and without sleeping accommodations.
He nearly jumped out of his skin when the girl threw herself against the bars. He felt at the same time a pull to his left arm as the girl’s grabby fingers hooked around a chink in his suit and yanked him toward the bars of the cell. His right arm crossed immediately to grab her wrist while his left hand secured a position on the grip of his Gatling Gun, and then he yanked her toward himself against the metal rungs, gloved grip squeezing tight around her wrist as he lifted her arm upward.
The first thing that registered was the blood. The second, how terribly short she was in comparison to him. He knew his face was invisible behind the confines of his helm, but he tried to keep his face straight. She was like a rabid dog! Did she never rest? He no longer had his APP Rifle on him or else he might’ve been tempted to stun her a second time. He swore, quietly, and released her wrist. The shadow of his body encompassed her from where he stood. He resented her for not appearing afraid. "Do that again and I just might murder you."
Three x’hora. How was he supposed to tolerate this insolent child for three whole x’hora without shooting her? He turned away from her, twisting his wrists over to unzip the seams of his gloves and let them dangle free from his fingers attached to his sleeves. He had stepped away from the bars and was lingering just a few paces out of reach. The cool air tingled against his exposed skin. He had no memory of his father but imagined that his hands must look similar to whatever his had looked like. Five long fingers, a tawny complexion of near beige etched with seams of sapphire blue. Calloused hands lacking all the curve and point of Xux’ite claws. He fished from his pocket a tiny rectangular slab, about three inches in length both ways, with fifteen smaller numbered squares within, disordered. Distracting himself with the puzzle (trying to move the numbered metal boxes so that they were ordered in a certain sequence), Teeth tried to pay the girl no mind. This worked for about fifteen parsa (minutes).
“Will you shut up?” He turned on her, militancy in tone toward the belligerent girl. “You’re making a fool out of yourself.” His thumb pressed into the number ‘6’ on its little square, imprinting the ridges into his skin. “Don’t you have any idea where you are?” He stepped toward her but was mindful not to get too close least she try to reach for his weapon. “You’re on a Xux’ite transport ship that, in less than five x’hora’s time, is going to dock at a Xux’ite warship, where they’re going to break all of your bones and laugh at you while you drown in your own blood and spit. Or worse, slice your head open, probe your brain, pull all the wires loose, and then make you into a docile little bitch that just drools and rolls over. Then we’ll see who the dog really is.”
So he had some fire in him. Ket's expression curved into one of surprise as he quickly retaliated, the grip on her wrist startlingly solid. She couldn't help it. She laughed. It was a sick laugh, a crazed laugh, one that Ket knew was a result of her own doubts settling in, but to him, she must have looked like a crazed animal, a person losing their bearings. The spattering of blood on her cheeks, the wild look in her eyes, but as she met his she tried to show only fury. "Just might?" Ket echoed, her voice devolving into an unbecoming giggle. "Go ahead, puppy dog. Bite."
But he let go, and she backed away, and began to pace the dorm. The emotion had risen from her gut to her chest to her throat, and now she was trying to push it back down. Whenever it climbed too far, threatened to reach her eyes or her mouth, she would bang on the bars, kick at the walls, talk, talk, talk. Her veins were strained with effort, to keep herself upright, to keep herself from feeling her own emotions. The sound of her brother screaming for her played in her mind. She supposed this guard didn't have any siblings, any family. Didn't know what it was like to care. All the Xux'ites laughed about how unfortunately weak and helpless the humans were, but they didn't know what they were missing. And apparently, neither did she, because she'd destroyed the only goodness she'd ever known.
Those fifteen parsa went quickly for Ket. She'd found a routine in the way that she made a ruckus. It was clear to her now that they were far and away from wherever the rest of his pack was, so she felt secure in giving this one hell. He managed to find a way to busy himself, but Ket paid it little mind. She counted the tiles in the flooring, the nails bolting the ceiling. Her numbers could only reach so far, and when she faltered, she started fresh. With insults, snarls, musings. "Your suit's ugly, pup. Why don't you take your helmet off so I can see how little human you've got left? Where's your big laser gun, huh? Too scared to shoot me for real?"
Finally, it was his turn to bark, but she didn't bite. She didn't stop her banging, her pacing, the insistence on thinking of nothing but revenge. Pushing Craine's face out of her mind. Wondering if the bullets had reached far enough to snuff out her parents before they even understood what had occurred. She appreciated the preview he gave, though. It allowed Ket to begin steeling herself for what was surely to come. Almost as quickly as he had stopped talking, she found retaliation spilling out of her mouth.
"And you take pride in that, mutt?" Ket hissed, voice low, but this time, a little less harrowing. Questioning, now, but viciously so. "Are you eager to watch me suffer just like you watched my sector be wiped? That alien blood in your bones probably makes you like it, huh?” Her voice rose, and she pressed her face as far between the bars as she could, trying to get as close to him with her words as possible. “They could make me into whatever they want, but I'll at least die knowing that I fought with my every breath to stay human. You'll get to watch knowing you were born scum."
Her own words sent a certain chill down her spine, the levity of the situation slowly settling in. The Xux’ites on earth had always been crude with their torture. Lashings, beatings, solitary, starvation. What this guard described seemed to be more higher caliber than the punishments she had endured on earth, but her stubborn mind insisted it was still something she could handle. And if not, well, then it was something she deserved. But this idiot didn’t need to know that, so she continued her assault of words, knowing that every jab she made would leave some imprint, anything at all. At least she would not go down easy.
“Will they do it with a viewing room? A crowd, maybe? I hope you get front line tickets, puppy dog. If that’s what get your rocks off, I sure hope you get to watch my brain fall out of my head. Sick fuck.” She had the dim sense that he was busy with that stupid metal square in an attempt to ignore her, so continuing to press herself against the bars, Ket allowed her nostrils to flare as she squinted at the thing, trying to understand what the hell was so captivating about a sheet of metal with glyphs on it. But if he just came a little closer, she could grab that gun he kept close on his hip... and maybe there'd be hope for her yet.
Teeth’s eyes narrowed at the spiteful girl. He squeezed the miniature puzzle between his fingers so tightly that his hand trembled. It was just the day for pushing his buttons, wasn’t it? First Xoveon, belittling him on the basis of his mixed racial status, and now this girl who was insistent on dehumanizing him and berating him, degrading him with insults that held a weight she knew nothing about. But to sit the girl down and explain his genetic history to her would do no service to either of them. She wouldn’t likely care to hear about his mixed lineage, the marital status of his dead parents, and the technicality of his unrelated half-siblings scattered about doing who-knows-what. He didn’t consider them family. And again, the girl wasn’t calling him a mutt because she was curious about him. She was trying to get a rise out of him.
And it was working. If he’d had his APP Rifle on him, he most certainly would have shot her with it by this time. He chastised himself for spacing out earlier and leaving it in the equipment room. He was going to have to remember to blast the little devil an additional few times the next time he had it on him to make up for the present moment. The idea of shooting her made her insults unabatedly more bearable and his anger diminished some. Still, the precision of her insults made him shiver. He couldn’t let her see that she’d stumbled upon on what was probably the most sensitive material she could’ve chosen to insult him upon.
In Xux’ite culture, your value has a direct correlation to your references and origin. For Teeth, that origin was the house of an infamously wealthy Xux’ite warlord, a cousin or other distant descendant to the emperor and his lineage, one put in permanent position of power over Lumania’s colonies. To a similar extent that General Xoveon was in charge of Earth and its surrounding planets. Excepting that Lumania was far more prosperous and far greater in population-- it was a common rumor that Earth and its colonies were deep in the decline. Teeth’s mother had become a concubine to Uthendrall a while after Teeth had been born. Old enough to remember the time that came before. And when he had been around eight years old, he’d been admitted to a military-based program meant to assist in his transition into the ARK ranks when he became of age, about eight years later.
Cool, calm, unprovoked. He bit hard on his lower lip, glaring at her while knowing she wouldn’t have been able to see his hateful expression. But he glared nonetheless. And then he forced himself to look back at his puzzle. He slid a few tiles but his thoughts remained on the girl behind him. How did she have the energy to keep spewing words like that? Didn’t she feel ashamed for the situation she’d gotten herself in? Couldn’t she grieve in silence? The thought of grieving reminded Teeth of his mother, and with that thought the anger returned.
“I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.” He said to her in his very Alt-Lumarian accent. He said it without turning around, thumb now positioned over the number ‘4’. It… could have been a fault on his part that he would threaten the girl who’d just lost everything. But she wasn’t making herself easy to scrounge pity for. Maybe a good wack would bring her to her senses. Make her cry a little. A little suffering might open her to a new perspective—and by that he meant his perspective, which he perceived to be better than hers. All this to say… he resented her for her outrage, for her carefree expression of hate, for her unrestrained viciousness and for the freedom she had to express all of these things. He resented her for feeling things and he shunned her for not suppressing her anger like him. With a haughty sense of superiority, he mused that she would soon have the fight beat out of her, and then she would become more accepting of her fate. And hopefully die without much fuss.
“Violence isn’t hereditary. No amount of Xux’ite blood in me is going to make me enjoy watching you get the shit beat out of you.” He turned slightly then. “I’m not going to feel any particular way about it, in fact. You though.” He made a ‘tsk’ sound. “You’re going to feel it.” And then he returned to his puzzle. And he kept at his puzzle for an immeasurably long time, refusing to turn or move in the direction of the cage.
He held his peace for the most part, but every so often he felt the need to give the girl his input, if only to deter whatever topic she was on. Brief chides like, “Don’t you ever hold your peace?” and “Quit yapping or I’ll put you down. Bad earthling”.
Eventually, after what felt like an unbearable amount of time, another soldier arrived to relieve Teeth of his duty.
“ARK 2232. General Karkaph requests your presence in the left wing.”
Teeth eyed the SRC’s APP Rifle. He was tempted to ask for it so he could wack the girl over the head with it. But he settled for vowing to enact his plan of revenge at a later date. Plus, he doubted the SRC would have any more patience than he and worrying that the girl wouldn’t get shot numerous times before their next meeting should not have been his concern. So he departed. Wordlessly, with only a glance toward the girl as he left.
The guard did not inch forward. Ket stayed pressed against the bars, but her chance did not come. No mythical moment of grabbing his gun, spinning it on him, forcing him to unlock the cage. No triumphant ship takeover, no last battlecry, and no warrior's death. Instead, she was to be transferred from one Xux'ite hand to another, to do whatever they pleased with. Rewire her brain. Pick apart her limbs. She had joked about being thrown in cement, but it was slowly starting to feel like a possibility. Ket could picture herself that way. Frozen in time, hands outstretched, mouth open in a silent scream, among so many others trapped in their final moments, adorning the wall of some Xux'ite warlord. Did they sip tea while they stared at their ornaments? Or maybe it was blood in those ornate gemstone cups she imagined they had.
Ket had never left earth. All she knew of their alien overlords was what cheap previews they gave the humans they worked to the bone. Ket had always had the sense that it was much worse out there. Partially because her parents said so, partially because Craine said so, and partially because the crude violence they showed to her on earth didn't translate feel like it scaled. Savages though they were, their rankings, their systems, there had to be someone with more detail to their disaster at the top of the chain.
Still, Ket hadn't ever really wanted to know the method to their murder. She was consoled by the stories her mother told, of the beauty of earth, of the freedom of humanity, and everything outside of it was all under one umbrella for her. Evil. The ruin of earth could be credited to all the outside forces that loomed around it. Before the aliens, there had been peace here. And any alien meant the ruin of all that past hope she longed for. So she hated them all, equally. Each guard, each mutt, whoever. They were all the same thing. Invaders. Aliens. Long ago had her fellow humans given up on any retaliation, but Ket clung onto the thought of rebellion like it was all she had. She was alone in her ideals, and now she was alone, wholly and truly.
She reflexively scoffed at his empty threat. "Beat the shit out of me, huh?" Ket said through something of a laugh. "You gonna come in here and make good on that?" He said it like a business proposition. These stupid soldiers didn't have an ounce of thought for their own selves. Ket didn't understand his accent, but she didn't care to. He was a mutt, he was her guard, and all that made him worthless and insolent to her. He was just another brick in their wall and she almost felt bad for the fact that he couldn't see past it. Almost.
As this guard gave his little speech, Ket continued her pacing. She never slowed, never let her mind take hold, never let her feelings get anything past surface level anger. And most importantly, never gave him the satisfaction of thinking she was fully listening to him. For someone who claimed he wasn't going to enjoy watching her guts be ripped up, he sure did seem to like insisting that she'd feel the full force of whatever they'd do to her. "Lucky me." She muttered. "Lucky us. Don't worry, puppy dog. I'll vouch for you when you try to get those front row seats. Friends of the performer get special treatment."
Ket counted some more. She made up some numbers when it got past what she knew. The guard stood tall, far away, out of reach, and stoic under his stupid helmet. She liked to imagine what she'd said made him cringe. Wasn't her fault he was so busy with whatever game he was playing on his metal square. Enrichment for the dogs, she supposed. The pounding of the headache began to bleed away, and as it allowed her to think a little clearer, Ket only grew louder, drowning out her own thoughts with all the breath in her lungs she could muster.
Eventually, the time for her new buddy to leave came. "I hope you beat the shit out of him!" Ket yelled after him, and upon seeing him turn back to glance at her, slammed herself against the bars once more, hoping to get in one last scare as he scampered off to his superior. Time was dwindling, but she tried to keep that number he went by in her head. Any piece of knowledge, when she knew so little about how this edge of the world worked, was valuable, even if to scream it with vengeance under her last breath. Fuck you, ARK 2232. She watched him disappear around the bend.
The military ranking system went something like this.
The emperor is on top. He always comes first. Below him, the court of greater warlords, each chosen by the emperor himself to be a leader of a certain battalion or to dictate a certain sector of his vast empire. Below the greater warlords, the lesser warlords, those also appointed by the emperor but with less prestige and with less achievement under their belts. When one of the greater chosen dies, a younger lesser will be selected to take their place, freeing up a position for a noteworthy young SRC to rise in the ranks. In Xux’ite military culture, the Alt-Lumanian word ‘General’ is synonymous with the word ‘warlord’. In Xux’ite language the word is the exact same.
Below the Generals, the Legates and the SRCs. The Legates were more generally any type of military official that wasn’t necessarily a combatant but who understood the theory and prose of battle. The children of the greater and lesser warlords who wouldn’t do well in a physical altercation. This group included analysts, linguists, technology specialists, and field scientists. The SRC rank was exclusively reserved for armed soldiers who would be deployed in combat. A General could be derived from either group but was more commonly chosen from the SRC bunch, as Xux’ite culture highly valued one’s physical prowess and impressive feats in combat were what won praise and promotion. It is also noteworthy that pure-blooded Xux’ites almost exclusively fell into the SRC category, while those of half-descent or less tended to migrate toward the Legate ladder, but this fact is not mutually exclusive.
Below the Legates and SRCs, the ARKs. Just like the SRCs and Legates operates, ARK soldiers were put through several years of rigorous training prefacing their deployment. Most of the group was comprised of half-Xux’ites or other half-races, those which made the narrow cut above being the lowest rank, an ROC. There was no separate division for any of these groups for specialized forces, but rather, all soldiers above the ROC rank were expected to be flexible learners and highly competent combatants able to adapt to their situations. No separate flying class—all were expected to be 5-star pilots. An ARK could be promoted to an SRC if a warlord permits it, without consultation from the emperor. But promotion to a Legate had to be approved by a member of the emperor’s council of greater warlords and was a position far more difficult to acquire. This made warzones into a competitive battlefield between SRCs and ARKs trying to impress their Generals, while the lower ROC ranking soldiers were given no such promise in their permanent position.
General Karkaph was a lesser warlord who served under the higher-ranking warlord Xoveon. In the Xux’ite language there is a prefix difference when referring to the higher ranking or lesser ranking Generals, but any human-language translations would have lost the indicator. There were hundreds of Generals anyway, and always knowing the difference between the greater and the lesser was nearly impossible for anyone unless it was especially your business to know. In times of doubt, ‘General’ would do just fine.
Teeth removed his helmet as he entered the ship’s lower bridge area. There were a great many systems and computers which buzzed and crackled in the room, a whirring, active combination of highly advanced alien technology and machinery manned by pristine uniformed Legate officers. General Karkaph turned as Teeth arrived and waved him over with one of his four hands. Teeth liked General Karkaph. He wasn’t atypically kind or generous, he had no redeeming attributes which made him any less of an intimidating self-righteous dictator, but he had a way of seeing a problem and knowing the most efficient way to handle it, and Teeth appreciated that. He was good at mitigating conflict, and his level-headedness amidst kin of inherently violent rulers did not go unnoticed.
“2232,” Karkaph’s voice was a rumble, one which reverberated through his thick chest.
Teeth stopped and stood at attention, one fist curled against his front and the other against his back in a formal salute. “At ease.” Teeth lowered his hands.
“Xoveon and I discussed your performance earlier this evening.” Two of Karkaph’s hands crossed over his chest while the other two were folded behind his back. His four eyes gleamed down at Teeth with what might’ve been an inkling of fondness. But Teeth doubted he’d go so far as to voice praise. Teeth had been serving under Karkaph since the embarkment to Earth, and for better or for worse, Teeth had lately been under the impression that Karkaph was watching him. “You addressed the General. You understand that this was out of line, 2232?”
Teeth took a second to find his voice, he was already nodding before he could get the words out. “Yes, General.”
“Then you understand that I must have you punished. I would have you report to the chapel once aboard the Vernimus for correctional training.” Karkaph loomed over him, an impressive near eight feet in height over Teeth’s six. “You’ve been reassigned from my oversight. It’s Xoveon’s orders. He wanted you to have a reward.” Teeth struggled over the bubble rising in him that was protest. “After our connection with Vernimus, you will board a ship returning to the main fleet and escort our human prisoner to the Emperor. From here on you will no longer report to your active SRC commander or myself, you will report to General Lautais directly.”
Teeth tried not to let his disappointment show through his face. General Lautais, another lesser warlord in Xoveon’s court, seriously had it out for him. A three-month voyage back to the main fleet with the guy might just be the death of him. The guy had a temper like a firecracker and a famous passion for torturing his underlings. Something you had to be impressively infamous for in order to make a mark among an array of warlords who typically cared very little for the lives of their soldiers to begin with. Karkaph hadn’t spoken in a few seconds and seemed to be regarding him thoroughly. Teeth straightened as tall as he could and barred his feelings from manifesting anywhere visible. His opinion didn’t matter. He did not have control here. He was just a soldier. Less than that, a speck in space. A little humility would serve him right.
“That is all.” Karkaph said at last, turning away from him.
Teeth left feeling light-headed.
Teeth and two other visor-adorned soldiers approached the human girl’s cell. Teeth gave no form of greeting to the girl but dismissed the current guard who then retreated down the hall. The SRC to his left stepped up to the cage, raised his APP Rifle, and shot the girl with a pulse. The door to the cell swung open as Teeth entered, grabbing the zapped-out girl, stepping a long leg over her to grab both of her arms. “Nothing personal,” he murmured, as he unhitched the thick metal cuffs from his waist and secured them around her wrists above her head. And then he dragged her from the cell by said cuffs. The two other guards followed on either side of her body, rifles to their chests, faces obscured by their helms.
The transport ship had docked inside the mouth of a much, much larger warship. Androids, bots, service workers, ROC workers, and other class pilots moved about within the bustling bay, some pushing carts or groups filing by in lines. Once off of the transport ship Teeth paused to hoist the limp girl over his shoulder with a grunt, thinking ahead to all of the steps and uneven ground they were about to come across when making their way deeper into the Vernimus. Vernimus, Xoveon’s main ship, the pearl of his fleet. They had about twelve hours until they would be transferred to General Lautais’ ship. General Lautais, a warlord who was one of Xoveon’s subjects, the one who would be transporting several hundred thousand pounds of precious gems and materials from earth back to the emperor’s main fleet.
They passed along through corridors, tunnels, thick doors, metal doors, metal hallways, sharp corners, up and down various stairs, and ended up in a quieter place not unsimilar to the cells on the transport ship—except much, much bigger. The aisles stretched on as far as the darkness enveloped, rows of thick two-part metal doors with dreary glowing lights embedded above. Teeth and the rest of the escort brought the girl to one of these cells, an undefined dark room with no furniture and no windows, and he set her down on the floor. “I’ll be back in—” he cut himself off, staring down at her through his helmet. Why did she deserve to know his schedule? He never finished but turned about and left the room. The doors closed heavily, gssh’ing and then swallowing the room in total darkness.
Nobody stayed to wait for her to return to full consciousness.
It became Teeth’s turn to be escorted as he began the dreaded walk to the chapel (glorified torture dungeon).
For this third guard, Ket could finally feel the hoarseness in her throat. The dryness on her tongue. She started again, to count, to belittle, to complain, but her voice began to crack with effort. It had been hours now that she’d been running her mouth, banging on the walls, and she was beginning to lose her resolve. She ran her routine to the best of her ability, though this one didn’t bite as much as the last. He had no stupid metal square, and stared blankly ahead like a robot, unflinching and unwavering under whatever force Ket had left to produce. She could only howl for so long, and with no food, no water, this energy wasn't going to last. Still, it didn't stop her from expending it. While she still had an audience, Ket performed.
Luckily this guard’s stint felt shorter than the last two. While Ket tried hard to not let her act go, she found herself slightly surprised to see puzzle-square back so soon. To what did she owe the pleasure? Were those five x'horas already up? Maybe things were slipping by quicker. Her mouth opened, to spit more venom, to smile sweetly and vengefully and ask of the occasion, but a familiar blaster was produced, and her eyes went wide as a laser was shot much too close to point-blank. As Ket crumpled to the floor once more, fighting to cling to consciousness with all her might, his words found her ears. Nothing personal. Nothing personal. She would have laughed if she could have. Just business, of course. To slap cuffs on her wrists, drag her out and let her limp head feel every bump along the way. Nothing. Fucking. Personal.
She lost consciousness once or twice on the way there. It got blurry, and the way her body roughly hit ever turn made things go dark. Still, Ket was unable to let go, even in darkness, and would phase in and out of consciousness, eyes fluttering, mind fighting, dipping in and out of inky blackness, bright awakeness, and blackness again. At some point in this walk - drag - of shame, Ket felt herself being lifted. She was dizzy. She was on his shoulder now, and she wished dearly to be able to kick, and scream, and fight, and break free. But more than anything her body was a jail and her mind kept on begging to let go. Ket would not let go.
Eventually, the cruel journey ended. Her humiliation pinned for later as he dropped her onto the floor, with a strange amount more of delicateness than she had experienced the entire ride here. Her head fell to her chest, with no strength to pick it up, and there were more words from his mouth. I'll be back. Why was he saying that? Why was it him? Why would he tell her? Nothing made sense here, and everything felt on fire, not in the way that Ket normally liked. He stopped midway, turned around, and left her in darkness.
A new prison.
In this one, there were no bars to peer through. A little flap in the door, to be lifted outside to slide in the food, but otherwise, darkness. She didn’t realize how good she had it, with a view of the hallway, with a guard posted out front to bother. The metal doors were thick, and made every sound reverberate in a way that felt sharp against her ears. She couldn't hear anything occurring down the seemingly endless hall she'd caught a glimpse of while hauled around like a sack on the guard's shoulders, but now, in this box, she couldn't tell if it was the thickness of the cell doors causing the silence, or that she was truly alone in her imprisonment. The silence was loud.
Because it was so dark, she wasn't certain if she'd blacked out at all since being deposited in this new cell, but when she finally found purchase over her limbs again, they felt foreign. Without being able to see but the tiniest shadow of movement, of her own fingers stretching and closing, she wasn't fully sure that she had awoken from the sloggish dream that was being zapped with the laser for the second time around. Ket stood, wobbled, and tried to pry her fingers through the little metal slit. It did not budge from the inside, but it was at least something to touch the door, to feel the coolness on her fingertips, to wonder and wait when it would open. If at all.
She found the corner crawling on her knees. Crawling like she had been forced to do through the crystal caverns, but at least there, there was light in the way that the geodes sparkled. Here, there was nothing. Nothing but cool metal at every turn, chilling her to the bone, offering no comfort. Bringing her knees up, holding her arms around them, Ket allowed her head to fall in between her tattered robes. They didn't bother to search her, perhaps because they knew that earthly slaves weren't supposed to have pockets, and Ket wasn't much of a planner for possible bad endings. She had hidden no weapon, no backup plan. All she had was the piece of crystal that dangled from her neck, which she wrapped her hand around and now clung to for dear life. The only thing she had left of home.
Her body shuddered and shivered in there, and yet Ket felt so strangely detached. To make noise suddenly felt pointless. She had a sinking feeling there was no one guarding these cells, and while the thought should have invigorated her, the murk swallowed her. Earth was blindingly bright. The sun never stopped raining down on them, angering her pale skin, painting in between her natural freckles with sun spots. She hated to be blind more than anything, and though she was accustomed to the punishment, thrown in the solitary box the guards so loved to put people in, this blindness was unlike any punishment she had received. On earth, there was always a promise of being released. Of being returned to the mines, to her family, no matter how long it took. Here, there was no promise of anything except more pain, and more torture, and no light, ever again.
She used the corner to hold her, to keep her back to the wall so that nothing could jump at her from behind, to feel some sense of something holding her securely, safely. She tried to imagine it was the arms of her mother, but to equate her mother to something so cold and lifeless felt like almost a joke to her memory. So Ket put that childish thought out of her mind, but found nothing better to replace it. Nothing but guilt, sorrow. So dark. So quiet. This was what they wanted. This was all they wanted. Would she be broken in hours? The thought reignited her flame. No. If she were the last, the last of her sector, the last of her mother's smile, of her father's stance, her brother's wit, she would not allow their memory to be put out so quickly.
Ket stood. Forget her pain, her humiliation. Whatever it was did not matter. This guilt would not be the last of Sector 7. She would be loud. Not for herself, but for them. A prison of murk and of silence was a clever contraption, but Ket was never one to bend to others will. She would be loud, even if no one heard, because it was her breath that now held all theirs.
Ket stood, and she screamed. It echoed against the metal, and she screamed until she had no breath. Then she screamed again.