Thank you for reading! This is an NSC written by Aia and InBrightestDay, written with my approval and reference. Discussion for this story will be primarily located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
Krathan didn’t turn to look as Grakrash entered his chambers. There was no greeting, no glance, not even a flicker of an eye. No acknowledgement of him whatsoever.
The chamber was surprisingly cold: something Krathan had elected to deal with by wrapping his body with a heavy blanket. He sat in front of a wall of glass that bifurcated his quarters. The room beyond was brightly lit, the glow from the chamber casting a long shadow behind the seated vet. Grakrash walked up to him, swallowing a mouthful of nervous spit.
“Hey, brother. Have you had breakfast yet?” Grakrash asked softly.
“I’m taking care of my health just fine, Grakrash,” Krathan growled, still not looking at him. “Don’t you have officer duties to take care of or something?”
Grakrash flinched, turning away. This was — much harder than he’d anticipated.
He really should say something. A little joke, a snippy retort, or some funny anecdote. Grakrash was always someone who could get people to smile and laugh. He even could bring a grin to his younger brother’s face once in a while.
A large medical bed had recently been added to Krathan’s room. Krathan had so few amenities that it was easy to notice. The bed was intricate, with dozens of actuator plugs, gel pads, temperature regulating sheets, and other medical features that Grakrash couldn’t begin to guess at. It was a bed specifically designed for use by a warrior kthid rather than by one of the slaves. Rather than its current occupant.
A respirator fed its air pipes into Anisa’s mouth and the siphons on her legs, inflating and deflating her lungs in lieu of her muscles. Her skin was ashen gray, and had remained so for over a week now. Grakrash’s piercings and the wounds on her body were gone, save for the biggest one. An opaque blanket had been thrown over Anisa’s side, draped conspicuously over the place where a limb should be.
No color. Whether cephalians were asleep or had fallen unconscious from exhaustion or punishments, their skin would still undulate with color and pattern. Anisa’s skin had neither. Just a flat monotone gray.
“Hey, brother. How is she doing?” Grakrash asked. “Medically, I mean.”
For a long while, it seemed like Krathan would refuse to answer. The scales on his neck bristled, and lines of tense musculature showed across his entire body.
“What do you want to know, Grakrash?” Krathan asked.
“About her health in general,” Grakrash said. “You didn’t say very much to me on the first day. Well, you didn’t say much to me about her on the first day, I should say.” Grakrash hesitated. “Just – how is she?”
Krathan sighed. “Cardiac condition is stable. The arrest in her left branchial heart was caused by septic shock. The cardiac arrhythmia in her other two hearts seems to have been caused either by direct trauma or systemic cascade. She might have three vascular systems, but her endocrine and nervous systems are both unified. The shock spreads.”
Grakrash did his best not to respond to the barb. “And the rest of her body? She doesn’t have a new tentacle yet. Do you need printer time to make a new one? Should I transfer some of mine to you?”
“She’ll be growing in her new leg. If she survives,” Krathan said coldly.
The conversation ground to a screeching halt. Grakrash locked his jaw. He needed to get Krathan to talk about the surgery or the cephalian again. Get him focussed on his work. Working always makes him feel better. “Brother?”
“What about the rest of her body?” Grakrash asked. “She was — used rather heavily. There’s probably a lot of bruising all over her body. Has that been fixed yet?”
“The bruising was extensive. Those wrappings on her body? That’s for the compress. It’s too risky to attempt to suture all her ruptured capillaries directly. For larger bleeds, I drained the formed cavities,” Krathan said. “The blunt trauma also damaged her lymphatic system, causing lymph to flood her tissue. Similar issues were observed with her spongy mesophylls. They’re — they’re like her bones, but collapsable. They were — just torn.”
A tremble worked its way up Krathan’s body. Was that horror, or rage? Grakrash could glean nothing from the blank mask of an expression his younger brother wore. Krathan continued.
“Fluids where they don’t belong irritate the surrounding tissue; cause complications. The patient isn’t conscious, so localized or transposed pain isn’t a major issue, but leaking blood can cause heavy bruising from fluid pressure alone. Lowered blood pressure can also precipitate total organ failure. The patient’s lung capillaries had also been ruptured and alveoli crushed. I’ve been running her blood out of her body for reoxygenation and to skim out the carbon dioxide,” Krathan said. “The restorative nanites I tried injecting wouldn’t have acted quickly enough to prevent the hypoxia-induced tissue necrosis. Her lungs were beyond saving. ”
Grakrash felt his chest tighten, his neck and shoulders stiffening. “What are you going to do then?” he asked, barely managing to keep his voice from rising.
“Nothing. I had her lungs removed days ago,” Krathan responded. “Her new lungs will arrive later today. That’s what needs to be dealt with, first and foremost. I’ll also need to make a decision on whether to try to save her kidneys or print a new set. For now, that part of her body is under complete metabolic quarantine.” Krathan paused. “Her systemic and her right branchial hearts were experiencing pathological arrhythmia. I injected dead nanites to diffuse the sodium signaling around her vagus and sympathetic cardiac nerves and planted pacemaker electrodes. Fortunately it only took a few hours of continuous patterned electrostimulation to regularize her heartbeats.”
“I get the general idea, brother,” Grakrash said. “No need to run through all the details.”
“The details are important, Grakrash. Living things are fragile chemical machines. Damage cascades.” Krathan let out a long sigh. “Her body is mostly intact and her other internal organs are functioning normally now. She can’t eat food, but a feeder solution into her gastric tract and a catheter ensure that she’s cycling food in and waste out. If today’s surgery is successful, I should be able to take her off the blood skimmer in a few days.”
“That sounds — good, brother,” Grakrash said. “Why isn’t she waking up?”
“There are complications related to the recovery of many slaves. Due to the Sunbreaker’s decree regarding cephalians, I don’t have a lot of literature and case studies to — I don’t know.” Krathan gritted his teeth, fingers curling into claws. “I don’t know.”
Grakrash nodded slowly. “They really messed her up, yeah?”
“Of course they would. They’re all morons!” Krathan growled.
Grakrash turned away. “You shouldn’t talk like that about the nobles and the high officers, brother,” he said.
“I will get angry at whoever I damn well please, Grakrash!” Krathan snapped. “These fucking idiots! They sat in a biology class once while they were still pissing their beds, and then read some unsourced shit on the archives and suddenly thought they were experts on what a slave could take! They’re why we have idiots running around thinking that two months of sleep deprival is a good punishment for a slave! Morons thinking slaves can just survive impromptu amputations! Because it’s easy, right? Because all you need to become a medical practitioner is the science knowledge of a casteless flunkie and a fucking hour of browsing a video blog!”
“Brother, please calm down.”
“I will not calm down! There are people who do nothing all day but safely figure out what the physical limits of a slave species are! On the encyclopedia entry of every single slave species we have in the Empire, there is an entire section about the safe limits of punishments! Do people look at it? Do they even peek at it? Of fucking course not!” Krathan shouted, his spittle splattering the glass divide. Grakrash was very glad there was nothing club-shaped nearby for Krathan to grab.
“Even if you somehow became illiterate between your casting and now, it’s not difficult to figure out! For whipping or caning, strike at limbs and away from the torso where all the vital organs are! For cutting and needles, don’t stab a slave anywhere near major blood vessels and have clotting agents and spare blood bags on hand! For punitive rape, make sure the slave is properly hydrated and is getting enough oxygen throughout! For electricity, restrict shocks to her sensitive body parts and keep the wattage low! If you want to restrict her food, then make sure she’s being provided with supplements to meet her vitamin and energy needs! If you want to beat her as punishment, DON’T!” Krathan twisted his head around, seething. “This is not difficult!”
Grakrash raised a hand, trying to calm his brother. “It’s alright, Krathan. I get it.”
“This is why we have doctors and vets, Grakrash! This is why we don’t just drag a casteless out of the slums and have them tell us how to take care of a slave! So this doesn’t happen!” Krathan shouted, slamming his fist against the glass wall. “Do you think people do this anywhere else? Does a warrior stroll into the ship’s reactor and start playing with the controls? Does an artist pick up a prosthetic limb and try to attach it to someone who just lost an arm? Do you think I’m just going to pick up a chisel, walk into the Trenkak-Llorian War Memorial, and start trying to ‘improve’ Sunbreaker Jrakash’s work? Of course not! So what makes it so that you idiots think that you can step into my field and do whatever you want to one of my patients!”
Grakrash shook his head quickly. “Of course not. You’re right. I’m sorry. She was supposed to be your heitera now and I overstepped because I got excited and stupid. I’m sorry, brother,” Grakrash said, looking over at the cephalian’s body. She looked so quiet and so serene like this.
He didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to think about any of this. Seeing Krathan so furious, and seeing Anisa like this, was just making things worse. Grakrash’s stomach squirmed, like his insides had just turned into a mass of thick worms.
“Look, brother, I need to go soon,” Grakrash finally said. “There’s a training I need to supervise.”
“Because of your new promotion. Right,” Krathan said, voice bitter. “Sure. Don’t let me keep you.”
“Sorry, brother.” Grakrash shuffled, his eyes to the ground. “Make sure you get enough sleep, alright?”
“Not much of a reason for me to stay awake anymore,” Krathan grunted. “I’ve done what I could. I’ve reconstructed what organs I can, put the ones that are salvageable on the right track, and restored her biological functions.”
“Alright,” Grakrash said. “And what are you going to do next in her treatment?” Krathan went silent for a long time.
“There’s nothing physically wrong with her that should prevent her from waking up.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Grakrash asked.
Krathan’s closed fist had left a dent in the glass. His paw smeared blood on the clear surface as it slid down the panel and dropped down by his side. “Nothing. There’s nothing I can do now,” Krathan said softly. “All I can do is hope that she’s still in there somewhere. That she’s still willing to wake up.”
“And what if she doesn’t ever wake up?” Grakrash asked.
“Then she’s already dead,” Krathan said solemnly, “and that thing on the bed is just a corpse with a pulse.”
Grakrash didn’t know how long he stood there, drowning in the deafening silence. He didn’t know what broke him out of his trance and he didn’t know what had him walking towards the exit to Krathan’s bedroom. All he knew was that he stopped before quite reaching the door, turning back around.
“Could you keep me updated?” Grakrash asked. “On her condition, I mean. Please?”
Krathan didn’t say anything. He just nodded.
Grakrash sighed, turning away. “Thank you, brother,” he said, pressing his hand against the button by the door. The door hissed faintly, opening the pathway for Grakrash towards the empty, desolate hall beyond.
Selara poked her head out from the servant’s tunnel, quickly taking in the grand doors, the looming statues, and the intricate purple and gold decor. The ship’s bridge was an area Selara usually tried to avoid. There were far too many kthid, and the kthid who were here were some of the most important members of the Empty Night’s war machine. They were the type Selara would typically have stayed well away from.
Now Master Avraks was always careful around Selara. Not just careful of what he did, but of what he said. She wouldn’t hear anything from him that he didn’t want her to hear. Her master was a high officer, however, and hosted a great number of parties, slave ordeals, and official functions. The other monsters simply weren’t interested in watching their words around another abused slave. During one such party, one of the guests had mentioned something. Master Avraks had cast a warning glance at him, and he had stopped talking, but the very fact that her master didn’t want her hearing about it told Selara that it was important.
She was here to find it now.
Selara’s gaze swept the wide corridor, her eyes narrowed against the painful brightness. The hallway was wide and, fortunately, relatively empty. The occasional kthid wandered past, but most of the traffic was arane scuttling to perform whatever duties were required of them.
At least Selara wouldn’t stand out. She’d just be another slave, hurrying off to perform a task. Master Avraks hadn’t actually given an order that required her to be anywhere near this area of the ship, but no one else would know that. Selara stepped out into the hallway.
She didn’t duck and run or attempt to dart between hiding spots, although both her instincts and her military training insisted that she should. She instead just kept her head down, her pace hurried, and stuck close to the walls. It wasn’t the type of hiding which she preferred or excelled in, but it was hiding all the same. Selara simply joined the trickling procession of slaves with downcast eyes, their quiet misery so banal that the few kthid wandering past didn’t once glance Selara’s way.
Each door was different, as grand and ornate as they were lurid and bawdy, but Selara’s eyes paid little attention to them. Her gaze instead flickered towards the panels of glass and metal, set into the weaving wooden patterns of tortured females and victorious kthid. Each panel was numbered using the sweeping kthid numerals. Selara slowed in front of the doors, making sure to sound out the numbers in her head, before moving on.
It took only a few minutes for her to find the door she wanted. Room fifty three, eleven-fifteen. Selara had repeated the number in her head hundreds of times to make sure she wouldn’t forget. She quickly glanced over her shoulder before reaching up and pressing the largest button on the door.
A beep, followed by a painfully bright light as the infrared beams swept over her face. Though the light from the biometric scanner was invisible to its kthid engineers, it was unpleasantly bright to Selara’s eyes. She didn’t need to wait for the door to beep angrily at her to know that she would be denied entrance. The fact that the door hadn’t instantly opened told her that much.
There was probably a servant’s entrance to the chamber somewhere, but the servants’ tunnels weren’t labeled at all. Having been built for the smaller slaves and forced into the space between the chambers, ship machinery, and more central passageways, the servant’s tunnels were beyond labyrinthine. Selara could probably spend a whole year searching and still fail to find her target.
Selara knelt down. She faced the door with her back, clasped a hand over the other on her lap, and lowered her head. Then she waited, her body unmoving save for the slight rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.
Time passed Selara by. Slaves passed her by, with maybe one in every hundred even bothering to glance her way. Kthid also passed her by, without one of them seeming to even notice her. A casted kthid owned their slaves completely. They could rape or torture or even kill their slave and no other kthid would even bat an eye. A slave being told to kneel and wait for their master for hours was so banal that a kthid could probably spend just as much time around here and still not realize that something was off.
Selara’s eyes flickered up as she saw a slave approach. A series of drone carts followed behind her, their electric motors humming softly. The slave in question had six arms and just as many eyes. An arane.
Universally nameless and without a specific kthid owner, it was hard for Selara to think of them as anything but a shadow of the kthid. Though they lacked the cruelties of their generational slavemasters, Selara felt almost as uncomfortable around them as she did the kthid.
The arane tapped her hand against the door. A series of sweeping lights spun a net over her face before blinking out, causing the door to click. The heavy wooden doors swung open automatically. Selara stood up with a single smooth motion and followed the arane woman in.
The room beyond was wide and, thankfully, dark. The aranes’ warm bodies were easy to spot against the relatively cooler chamber. The room stank of food, liquor, and sex, with puddles of bodily fluids splattered all over the ground. Wheeled drones roamed the chamber, doing their best to clean up the mess whilst the arane handled the more delicate cleaning tasks.
Selara could feel eyes on her, but she had come too far to back down now. Master Avraks would hurt her for this, of course. The threat of pain would likely have dissuaded Selara in her first few months as a slave. By now she knew Master Avraks would torture her regardless of what she did. Sadism was just a natural state of the monsters, and she had come to learn that reprisals over infractions like this were identical to the treatment she’d receive even if she was completely obedient.
A single large cube dominated the center of the chamber, seemingly held in place both by the hanging frame and the thick metal cables. An obscuring curtain hung over the cube like a blanket. Light leaked from the small spaces between the cloth, drawing bright smears over the floor.
Selara’s eyes flickered to the side briefly. She didn’t stop walking, maintaining a deliberately unhurried pace as she continued towards the center of the room.
“Excuse me!” The voice repeated. An arane stepped out in front of Selara this time. The woman’s skin was noticeably flushed with warmth. Selara couldn’t quite see panic, but the woman certainly looked somewhat anxious.
Other eyes were on her. Selara kept her eyes on the woman who’d moved to intercept her, but she could still see other arane looking her way. They looked at her even as they continued their work cleaning up the feasting hall. Should Selara just ignore the arane and act like she was on business from her master? The arane couldn’t possibly know what orders had been given to her.
Then again, Selara didn’t know what orders these arane were operating on. She might have just been stopped because they found her presence here peculiar, or because the orders they had been given specifically precluded her presence here. Would a kthid be informed about this? Selara straightened.
“Yes, is something wrong?” she asked.
“I – erm.” The arane’s eyes widened. The woman briefly spun around, looking towards the others as if for support. “Are you lost, heitera?”
“I don’t believe so,” Selara said, biting her lip.
The arane’s eyes flickered around her quickly. She fidgeted with her fingers, the digits twisting and squirming over each other like threads being knotted. “If – if you’re looking for your master, I’m really sorry but he’s not here,” the arane said.
“It does look like the feast ended hours ago,” Selara said. “Is another one happening soon?”
“Well no but that’s — ” The arane clasped her hands in front of her as if to steady herself. It seems like she wasn’t very used to talking to non-arane slaves either. “Why – why are you here, heitera?”
That was the question. Selara briefly considered lying, and telling the woman that poking around in unfamiliar places was just what she normally did. Master Avraks would be listening in on this conversation, however. He was busy now, but deviations from Selara’s usual activities would absolutely be noticed and scrutinized.
“I’ve heard some rumors from the masters that this was where the terran infiltrator was being kept,” Selara said. “I wanted to come see her for myself.” That was the truth, or at least mostly true.
“Oh!” The arane’s eyes went wide. The woman quickly glanced behind her. Her next words were whispered. “You – you knew about that?”
“There was an alarm a few days back, but I didn’t feel any explosions against the hull. I’ve heard a few of the masters talking and figured most of it out from there.” Selara glanced at the cube. “Is the infiltrator to be isolated? I’ll leave if I’m not allowed to see them.”
“Well, I don’t think you’re not allowed,” the arane said, squirming. “It’s just – is your master fine with you being here?”
“He hasn’t said anything about this in particular,” Selara said. “He watches me constantly, though. If he doesn’t want me looking around the ship for things to distract myself with, I’m sure he’ll make sure that I know.” If Selara acted like she didn’t think what she was doing was wrong, Master Avraks probably wouldn’t question her motives too much.
She probably didn’t have much to worry about. Not from Master Avraks specifically, at the very least.
The one arane still stood there, her brow creased into a concerned frown. Mutterings were coming from all over the room as the arane whispered conversations to each other. Selara was fairly sure she wasn’t doing anything wrong, but that didn’t mean she wanted any kthid hearing about this. She probably should try not to leave a bad impression on the spiders.
“There’s a lot of cleaning to get done,” Selara said, looking over towards the piles of dirty plates and heavily soiled sex toys.
“Oh! I – I should probably get back to that,” the woman muttered.
“Would you like me to help you?” Selara asked.
The arane’s mouth hung open. “I – I’m sorry?”
“There’s a lot to clean up, and it seems like I’ve taken up a fair bit of your time already,” Selara said. “I’ll help you hurry things along.”
“That’s – this is arane’s work, heitera,” the alien said. “Is your master fine with that?”
“I doubt he cares very much,” Selara replied. “If you don’t want me to, then just tell me so. I’ll stop flicking your wing if you don’t want help.”
“It’s not that, heitera. It’s just – I don’t think a heitera has ever offered to help me clean before,” the woman muttered, looking down at her fingers.
“Well then,” Selara said, her eyes sweeping the room. She walked towards one of the carts, one with the simple shape of a five-fingered hand next to a hole. A glove dispenser. Selara reached into the machine with both her hands, feeling a quick flush of cold against her skin, and then pulling back her hand. A thin film of rubbery material covering her hands. “Let me be the first.”
Trying to strike up conversations with the arane was a deeply uncomfortable experience for Selara at first. It seemed to be that way for the arane as well, judging from how many of them initially just pretended not to hear her or tried to cut any conversation short with a string of single-word responses. Selara couldn’t quite place the moment when that changed, but it did. Once one of them began talking to her, the rest seemed to quickly grow much more comfortable with conversation.
The work itself was simple. Plates, canisters, cutlery, and even the sheets of fabric covering the table went into a garbage disposal drone along with the food. That would all likely end up in the reclamation pits. Restraints, sex toys, and other tools of torture went into their own disposal drone. Apart from that, the only real difficulty was making sure to avoid impeding the path of the mop drones that moved in circles to clean up the spilled fluids.
According to what some of the arane had heard, the infiltrator actually attempted to assassinate the Huntmaster. It was why he had immediately made her his heitera. It was apparently also why the Huntmaster, after having confirmed that she was infected with his spawn, had simply opened up the would-be assassin to the attentions of some of his highest officers. This was apparently the fourth of such feasts.
Selara found herself wanting to follow up on many threads of new information, but the reason she had come to this place was never far from her mind. She had many questions for the arane, but it was far easier to find an arane than it would be to find time with the Huntmaster’s own heitera, especially since she didn’t want a kthid constantly looking over her shoulder. A few of the arane entered and exited from the cube at the room’s center. After she finished one of the tables, Selara headed straight for the door.
The room within was bright enough that Selara needed to squint her eyes against the light. Beneath the curtain, the walls of the cube were made from sheets of transparent plastic. Racks filled out the chamber, replete with needles and blades. Barbed whips and metal clamps. Tools seemingly pulled out of a sadistic nightmare filled the chamber like a library of torment. The arane were cleaning the toys carefully, wiping them down before putting them back on the shelves.
A platform had been erected at the center of the cube like a stage. A series of cinematic cameras hung from the ceiling on crane arms. They swarmed the feminine figure at the very center of it all. Even if Selara had stumbled into the cube without the context she had managed to gather in the last few days, she probably would have had a damn good chance of guessing the woman’s identity.
A mane of wavy hair that flowed down the infiltrator’s back. Air escaped her lungs in warm breaths that hung in the air for just a moment before fading away. The woman had a shapely figure: wide hips, full breasts, and athletic legs. Shorter than Selara, but she would probably throw a good punch. It was what Selara would imagine a female alien soldier would look like.
The infiltrator was impaled. A thick dildo, covered in spikes blunt enough to not draw blood but sharp enough to be agonizing, had been stabbed deep into her pussy. The dildo sat atop a solid metal pipe, one tall enough that she would only be able to stand on the balls of her feet and on the tips of her toes. With her arms restrained behind her in a belted sleeve, the simple yet nefarious prison kept her trapped.
The woman followed Selara with her eyes. Selara could see the woman’s skin warming up. Even restrained, the woman still looked at her with the air of a circling duelist in a gladiator ring. Selara quickly glanced at the filming cameras. The long tubes were covered by lens caps.
“I didn’t realize non-arane were allowed in here.”
Selara turned. The words hadn’t come from the translator. They echoed loud in all four of her ears. “You’ve learned the language already?” Selara asked. “Just after a few days?”
“It’s a language we’ve had information on for a long time now,” the infiltrator said. “I needed to learn it, in case the machine translator failed.”
Selara nodded. Her eyes flickered around the room. The glass cube, at least, looked bereft of any noticeable security cameras. Selara still headed over towards a nearby shelf, carefully wiping down the surface.
“I think I should probably begin by stating the obvious,” Selara said softly. “This conversation is being monitored. Whatever is said between us will reach kthid ears.”
“I figured,” the terran said.
Selara nodded. “My name’s Selara,” she said, looking over to the bound woman, “and you?”
“Nike,” the woman said. “I’ve seen your kind around the ship.”
Selara nodded. “There’s a fair number of us here. There used to be more, but many of the kthid left their slaves behind before leaving for the invasion.”
“And there’s still so many slaves aboard?” Nike muttered. The woman seemed to be speaking to herself, more than anything. “Selara.” The infiltrator sounded out the name. “How many of your kind are there on this ship?”
“It’s hard to say,” Selara shrugged, wiping the towel along the shelf. A few arane, mostly the ones that had just seen her, pointed her way and muttered to the others. They seemed to calm down as the ones she had already talked to reassured them. “Ten thousand. Maybe fifteen?”
“So many?” Nike whispered.
Selara sighed. “We’d lose that many in a single day during our war with the kthid,” she said softly, feeling that flame in her stir. She tightened her fists, forcing down that edge she could feel working its way into her words. “There are more falirans than us. I think they’re close to thirty thousand. A lot fewer corvids though, and a lot fewer harriers.”
Selara drew her lips into a line. “Then there are the mirucains. I think there might be a few thousand of them on this ship?” Selara shook her head. “That might be about two-thirds the remaining mirucain population in the universe. From what I know, they were barely working towards their first civilizations when the kthid found them.”
“I see,” Nike said.
Selara glanced towards the woman again. The terran’s face was a placid mask, even with the position her body had been contorted into. Kthid probably wouldn’t have been able to read her expression whatsoever. Even Selara could only look at the flushed warmth blooming over her skin and guess at what she was feeling.
Nike fell silent. Selara continued with her cleaning, following the aranes’ example. The arane, at least, didn’t seem to be paying attention to her anymore.
“You came from the outside, and from what I gathered, the human fleet managed quite a significant blow during the first engagement with the kthid,” Selara said. “Is the battle going well?”
“It went well initially. The first ambush was successful,” Nike said. “The kthid reconstituted and attacked. They managed to force their way through the wormhole and have a foothold in the Set system now.”
“I see.” Selara hesitated. “I’m sorry if this is…out of sorts, but I have to know. Do you think your people can win this war? Do you think your people can defeat the kthid?”
Nike bit her lips. “When planning out the fleet battle, we had expected to meet the kthid fleet in full war loadout,” the infiltrator said. “We hadn’t expected there to be so many civilians on board.”
Selara let out a dry chuckle. “This is what a war loadout looks like in the kthid empire. They don’t go anywhere without slaves they can rape and torture. The only reason they even left slaves back home was because they wanted more space in their ships to carry new ones back to their home system.”
Nike nodded. “We managed to destroy a few kthid ships in the first few engagements. Our ambush cut their warships to pieces,” she said. “Those ships probably had slaves aboard as well.”
“Yes,” Selara sighed. “I am aware.”
“If we manage to win this war, that’s probably what that would mean. A kthid defeat in high orbit. Ships torn apart by nuclear warheads. Any survivors from the blast waves and the heat hurled into the vacuum of space.”
A chill ran down Selara’s spine. She nodded. “I know.”
“Would you be fine with that?” Nike asked. “Would it be correct to be fine with that? Winning a victory to protect your people, but at the expense of the lives of innocent victims?”
Selara bit her lip. Would she be fine with that? When they’d descended upon her homeworld, Selara knew she’d wished complete destruction of the kthid. She wanted nothing more than the safety of her people and the destruction of the invaders. Never once during the war would she have imagined that there were other victims, non-umbral victims, aboard the alien vessels.
“My master. The kthid that owns me,” Selara said, the sound rising from her throat like gas through a tight chasm. “He killed my little brother. Murdered him right in front of me.”
“Oh,” Nike said. “My condolences.”
“I hate him. I hate him for so many reasons, but I think that’s why I hate him the most,” Selara whispered, placing down the towel. She hugged herself as the cold shudder worked its way up her spine. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about that. Not a single day passes when I’m not forced to remember what the monster who owns me has done to me. Not a single day goes by when I don’t wish that he just dies.”
Selara had to steady herself against the shelf. She hadn’t forgotten that Master Avraks would be listening to this. She knew that that would mean more torture. Despite that, she couldn’t stop herself. She felt…volcanic. Now that the thin crust had fractured, the seething, violent, boiling lava couldn’t help but surge forwards.
“Every single day I hope he dies. I hope that he suffers when he dies. I hope he screams,” Selara whispered, her nails digging into her arms. She shuddered so much that the bells on her back clanged and clattered. “I killed his brother, didn’t even know it at the time, but if it were up to me…. If it were up to me, I’d see his entire damn bloodline purged from the universe! Reduced to cinders and scattered to oblivion.”
A long hiss of air worked itself out of Selara’s mouth as she tried to breathe. She was glad that the arane were busy with their own conversations and tasks. What tiny rapport she had managed to build would likely be annihilated by her current behavior.
“But I don’t know if I want that more than to see my friends live,” Selara said softly. “I have friends aboard this ship. A few I had from before the war, and a few I made in this place. They’re good people. All of them.” She chuckled. “Even the one who’s kind of a bitch. I wished that there was a way to give them a happy life. After all they’ve been through, they deserve it. It’s horrible to think about what it would be like to lose one of them.” Selara tensed up, her jaw locking.
“Would that be worth seeing the kthid lose? Seeing Master Avraks die?” Her voice trailed off, disappearing alongside her moment of anger. The flame inside of her sank down to her core, just flickering like the burned-out wick of a candle. “I don’t know.” Selara’s voice was fainter than a whisper. Lighter than the touch of air.
Silence stretched between them: a silence Selara quickly filled with cleaning. She found herself quite glad that there were things that needed wiping down despite how foul they were. It at least meant that more of her emotions wouldn’t come pouring out. Emotions she’d rather Master Avraks didn’t hear. Emotions that she’d rather not hear.
“Selara,” Nike said. Selara turned towards the woman. “I have questions.”
Selara nodded. “Ask away.”
Nike nodded towards the cube’s entrance. “Are there kthid outside?”
“Not when I was last out there,” Selara said. “There are no guards outside. They’re probably not expecting any other infiltrators.”
“I’m the only one,” Nike said.
“I don’t care if you’re lying to me. If you are, please keep that to yourself.” Selara said, “Now that infiltrators are a present threat, there’ll be more patrols. That’ll give some slaves a bit of a break from the abuse.”
Nike nodded slowly. “That sounds bleak.”
“This life is very draining. If you want to call it a life,” Selara admitted. “What was your plan coming aboard the ship, if I may ask? Were you here to gather intelligence, or just cause some damage?”
Nike didn’t respond. “You don’t really need to answer that,” Selara said. “If you think something you say would be useful for the kthid to know, it would be better to keep it to yourself.”
“They’ve already forced everything I know about my mission out of me,”Nike said. “Not that there was very much to know. If you find an enemy combatant on your ship with a portable computer and explosives, you know what to expect.”
Selara nodded. “That makes sense.”
“The ambush didn’t cause as much damage as we would prefer,” Nike said. “Our warheads can cut through kthid shields, but only if they land direct hits or splash the shielding in tandem. The shield emitters can’t be overloaded otherwise. Our nuclear weapons weren’t strong enough.”
“Damaging a kthid battleship is already amazing,” Selara said. “My people didn’t even manage to reach the ships. Orbital bombardment forced us underground long before we could try to mount a strike against their fleet. I can’t imagine what our generals would have traded to be able to turn our weapons on their fleet.”
Selara looked down. “Then again, that would mean killing the slaves that were aboard. I’m not sure I’d have the strength to make that decision either way.”
“Because of your friends?”
“Because of any innocent slave,” Selara said. “I was never really good at sacrificing soldiers, much less people who weren’t even part of the fight. Even if it meant sparing my people, I’m not sure I would be able to live with that decision. I guess…I guess I would at least try to save those slaves that got between us and the kthid.
“I see,” Nike said.
Selara managed to work her way across a whole shelf before Nike spoke up again. “Selara,” she said, “there’s something on my body. Could you come take a look at it?”
“Sure,” Selara said, setting down her towel and heading towards the impaled terran.
Nike jutted out her chest as much as she could, considering her awkward position. A pang of pain twisted across the woman’s face as she adjusted her body on the spiked dildo. Thin chains jangled as they swung from large metal hoops that had been forced through her nipples. The chain joined to an equally painful looking piercing on her clit.
“Do you mean your piercings?” Selara’s voice drifted off.
Nike was mouthing something towards her. The terran moved her lips, stopped, and then began to move them again. Selara furrowed her brows.
“Yes. I mean, piercings. Yes, piercings,” Selara said, quickly glancing at the cube’s door. No kthid. “The kthid use them to decorate and torment their slaves. It’s the reason my master added mine.”
Need to escape, Nike mouthed. “Do you know when I’ll be able to take them off?” she asked.
“That’s – I mean, they don’t typically come off until your master gets bored of them,” Selara said. Escape?
Yes. Give report to command, Nike mouthed. “Do you know when that would be?”
“I’m really not sure,” Selara said, her fingers digging into her palms. It was hard to try to keep track of two simultaneous conversations, and it was only made harder with the quickening beat of her heart. Selara could see the backs of her hands grow warmer with rushing blood. Why report?
They don’t know. Innocent. Casualties, Nike mouthed. Fleet meets again. One month. New fight.
No warning. Everyone dies.
Selara hadn’t been moving much, leaning this way and that to inspect the piercings while she kept her eyes on Nike’s lips. Now, for just a moment, she froze completely. It felt like she was weightless. Not like when she was in flight, but more like when she was spiraling uncontrollably. Plunging downwards in a fall, but without ground in sight.
The questions whirled inside of her mind like the diurnal winds. Suddenly, there were so many things she wanted to ask the infiltrator, so many questions inside Selara’s lungs, so driven that she feared they would burrow their way out of her if they remained unspoken. So many questions, and yet Selara managed one word.
Can’t say. Sorry, Nike mouthed. I have to get out.
“I want to get these piercings removed if I can. They’re painful,” the terran said. “Could you find out more about the ship captain for me? See what I might be able to do to get these piercings removed.”
Selara’s mind raced for a moment before she realized that the answers to the question were the exact same. “Of course,” she said firmly. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you,” Nike said. “Please come see me again as soon as you can. I might be able to help.”
Selara nodded slowly. “I’m really not sure when I’ll be able to see you again,” she said. “You are the Huntmaster’s heitera. There’ll be few slaves on this ship busier than you.”
“I see,” Nike said. “Then I’ll need to trust you to do this for me.”
Selara nodded, turning away and heading for the exit. She waved back at a few arane, but she didn’t slow down until she’d left the room behind, entered back into the servants’ tunnels, and had so thoroughly lost herself in the winding corridors that she wasn’t sure that she would be able to find her way back to the feast hall even if she wanted to.
There’d been no hesitation in Nike’s eyes as she communicated those words. Everyone would die. There was no question about it. So what did that mean? Was the terran fleet going to hit the kthid much harder on their next engagement? No…no, that didn’t track. Nukes could do the job in massed volleys, but kthid shielding and point defense was tough. They’d survived the previous engagements; the infiltrator couldn’t have been so certain of victory based on conventional assault.
Which means the terrans have something up their sleeve, Selara thought, her eyes narrowing. Yes, something they would deploy in their next engagement. The agent wanted to get word back to their high command to try to stop what was about to happen.
Selara was walking fast now, so fast the bells were ringing softly. For the first time in years, she barely even heard them. Her heart was pounding, but it wasn’t from fear.
In some ways, the conditions hadn’t changed. The monsters were still hurting her friends. They were all still trapped in a ship full of monsters, surrounded by hundreds of millions of kilometers of empty space.
But there was an enemy fleet out there, not mining vessels but a full-blown fleet of spacefaring warships, and the terran fleet was prepping a nasty surprise for the kthid. And they would only be getting closer as the days went by.
For now, only Selara and the infiltrator, Nike, knew about this. They had one month until the next battle, so everything would have to play out in that time. Selara began running down a list of things to do, resources she needed to assemble.
Her head was tilted down, so those walking by wouldn’t have seen it, but for the first time in a very, very long time, the corners of her lips tilted up in a small smile.
She had work to do.