The Fox, an excerpt

It has been a while since I shared anything in blog form. I’m not much for journaling and I don’t have any exciting news (yet). So I’ve decided to share an excerpt from a WIP that I don’t actually work on much. It’s a piece I wander back to every once in a while, write a little, and wander off again. It may never see completion and probably won’t see an actual book page, but it’s a fun(?) side project. The setting is futuristic, sort of post-apocalyptic in that the human race has depleted our home set of planets and colonized others. Seven mega-corporations have funded the big move, privatized literally everything, and also function as government. Most people are just happy to still be alive, however and of course, there are dissenters. Our story begins on a prison moon called Oberon. I love this character so much and I hope you enjoy him, as well. My only disclaimer here is that it IS a work-in-progress and has NOT been through an editor. Yes, mistakes and commas abound. Happy reading!

Part 2 The Fox

Muffled cries and heavy breathing are all I can hear of the others, running somewhere ahead. Running, that’s all we ever do. There’s a pain in my side that’s a grand mix of hunger, dehydration and overworked muscle, and it makes breathing hard. If I stop, though, I’m a goner.

Behind me, the soldiers are chasing us, flashlights and laser sights searching the ruins of what was once a school. The noise of helicopters above is crushing. It distorts what’s left of my senses, the tiny part of me that hasn’t given in to panic.

The small cell of free people that I’ve gathered, they’ve looked to me for leadership, for calm in the midst of chaos, and I’ve led them here. I’ve failed them. Sleep deprivation and starvation are stacked against me. Everything is falling apart.

The Hope Academy has been abandoned for decades, like most of the cities on Pan, forsaken planet of red sand deserts and eroding rock formations that stretch for miles of nothing. There were thriving colonies here once, but they were obliterated by a natural, particularly nasty predator beast. The Jakka 

Still, Pan is a last ditch haven from the conglomerate, who rarely sends the military here except for the occasional training drill.

“There’s one!” a soldier shouts somewhere to my right.

A spatter of gunshots rings out into the darkness. Just a burst before a second voice calls a halt order.

“We do not shoot at children, soldier!”

No! Nealie! She’s only six. She’s the only child I’ve seen survive this planet in the year I’ve been here. Where is everyone?

I veer toward the sound of the guns without a conscious thought. I can hear her crying as the pounding of boots draws closer. God damn this cursed planet, and all the other planets that have been raped and left for dead by the corporations.

I dump all remaining strength into my legs. Each step forward feels like an earthquake threatening to shake me onto my face into the still-warm dirt. Just as I scoop her off the ground and pivot to the left to run, a spotlight glares down onto us. Gun shots ring out again, and again they’re ordered to stop. They don’t want us dead, they want us for the bodies in work camps.

Still, it’s enough to kill my momentum. All around me is light and darkness, the noise of the chopper blades beating the air, and distantly, screams. I put myself between the child and the hundred tiny, red dots that dance around me. As if my body would shield her from a hundred speeding bullets. I lift the tonfa in my right hand like a shield.

Maybe it’s nerves, or maybe it’s my blood sugar taking a nose dive, but a full body buzz makes me feel like puking. Not that there’s anything in my stomach to come back up.

“Drop the weapons!” a loud speaker booms.

The men with the guns are advancing. Nealie wails behind me, terrified more than I’ve ever seen her. There’s nothing I can do to try and save her without getting us killed. There’s nothing I can do. The tonfa hit the dirt and in the spot light, I can see the cloud of sand that rises when they land.

I think I’m falling from exhaustion before anyone touches me. Someone smashes me with the butt of a rifle anyway. All I see are stars, but I feel myself crash to the ground.

I sit up with a rasping gulp for air that feels like drinking ground glass. My chest heaves like I’ll never get another chance to breathe. I scrub my hands down my face and a lance of pain answers me, a reminder that there’s a deep tissue bruise on my left cheekbone. It might be fractured.

My thoughts rattle against the inside of my skull like dice in a cup. The bruise, the pain, it’s so reminiscent of something older. Another life – just three months ago and yet it feels like forever – on another planet. An actual planet and not this pathetic chunk of moon they call Oberon. I’d take my chances with the jakkas over this, hands down.

It was a dream. A dream that was also a memory. I haven’t thought of Nealie in weeks, of how I let her down. Her and the rest of the group. I shake my head hard, hoping to loosen the hold of that nightmare, but it just makes my brain tissue hurt.

I can feel the imprint of the tonfa against my palms. They were already ancient weapons when I found them, and I fitted them with blades, the flat of which paralleled my arms. They worked so well fending off the vicious jaws of the jakkas that hunted us on Pan. Their throats were the only part of them where their natural scales were thin enough to use a blade.

Those beasts are the kind of nightmare that make you wonder why educated people would choose to use their credit account to colonize that planet. Sure, the atmosphere is almost perfectly fit for human life. Except for the giant fucking reptilians with the poisonous venom and also the really sharp teeth.

I sling my legs over the edge of the slab of concrete they call my bed. My eyes are still adjusting to the gloom. I’m stuck somewhere in the small hours of morning when the air is deathly still and always slightly used. It’s a quiet, tepid time when I wish nothing more than that I could sleep through, just once. Except like clockwork, the dreams come, sometimes worse than the present. This was one.

Pan. I spent a long year there trying to scrounge up survivors for the cause. I found them and got them out of there. I saved a few, watched with a twinge in my gut as they slipped away into the night on a stealth-modified transport ship that only dropped every few weeks. I sacrificed my own desires and responsibilities to the cause, for the cause. Audacity got me caught. Maybe I got lazy. Now my face is in the system and I’m as good as dead to the fight.

Meeting Norna – Hawk – and the strange circumstances surrounding her, has brought it all back. I bite down on a groan just before it escapes. The worst thing about this place is the hopelessness, the fact that I’m powerless against every turn of the minutes, every little fucking detail about my days. I go where they tell me, stay where they tell me. I eat when they say I can, shower when they let me. Rage is all I have left, and it only gets me in trouble.

Once upon a time, in my distant past, I was a shining scholar. I attended medical school on a conglomerate funded grant, which, in short, meant they bought me. I’m something of a genius. I aced every test I ever took. But by the time I graduated young, I was so inundated with their doctrine that I couldn’t shit without thinking of how it affected the great masters in the sky. 

It never sat right when they taught me that my working class parents would be beneath me if I just followed their rules. I was destined for the best corporate hospitals, tending to the prolonged health of the wealthy. I could have a nice plot of land on a properly terraformed planet, make the big credits, have a cushioned life – that never would really belong to me.

It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t suit me now. But now, all my rebellion gets me are bruises. Then, I chose to say fuck it all, took what money I could and disappeared. Vanishing from the eyes of the conglomerate isn’t easy, but I’m a genius. Mostly. I guess a true genius wouldn’t get caught. Maybe a really smart guy wouldn’t fight. I guess I’m a working class genius.

Three loud clangs on my cell door make me jump. Breath catches in my throat and the fetid air around me reverberates the sound. What the fuck? What could these assholes want before the red sun even dawns?

With a heavy sigh, I shove myself to my feet and half-heartedly lift my hands in the air. Seconds later, the door screeches open and the harsh, artificial light clicks on above me. I squint despite myself as the washed-out brightness blinds me. A gush of fresh – well, fresher – air blasts me from the corridor beyond my pathetic living quarters. The sound of heavily booted feet in the hall sends shivers through my limbs, calling back to the dream I just woke from.

“Laborer number zero-three-five-zero-gamma-seven-Medic, assume position for transport!”

Transport? All the muscles and liquids in my gut somersault. My back teeth grind together. What holy hell is this? I haven’t done anything particularly disobedient since they beat the shit out of me for talking too boldly. 

“You are to be sanitized. Comply.”

I frown even as I turn toward my bed and put my hands behind me. It’s not my bath day, not unless I lost a chunk of time somewhere. I glance at the tally marks I’ve carved into the wall every day since I arrived.

One of the guards advances, so heavy-footed I wonder how he doesn’t trip on himself. I hear the jangle of the thick shackles before he clamps them on my wrists. Then there’s a beep that tells us they’re locked.

“I don’t know why the Captain cares to see him so fuckin’ early,” he mutters, maybe to himself, maybe to the other guards. Like I’m not even here.

My nerves do another messy roll. There’s not much in my stomach, so I do my best to ignore it. I cock half a grin that they can’t see, though the sentiment doesn’t scratch beneath the surface. I don’t know for sure, but I have a good idea why. Maybe if I can put on a good enough show, he’ll never know more than I want him to. Maybe I can do my part to save the Hawk, and the good Captain will never be the wiser.

Regardless of what I told her – Norna, the name still feels strange – it’s better to save one of us than neither of us. She has more of a chance to work her way back to the fight, and remain unknown. She’s smart enough to do it from the inside, if she hasn’t completely lost the will to make it back. I don’t believe that she has. It’s always been my fate to save someone, even if – no, especially if it’s not the way the conglomerate snakes had in mind.

She couldn’t believe I knew her face. Those crazy, golden eyes gave her away. I wasn’t completely honest when she asked how they got me. I left out where they got me, and the reason I went there at all. I didn’t tell her that I signed on for the Pan gig because I was a field operative in a campaign to find her. A campaign funded by the very upper echelon of the resistance, and one kept extremely hush-hush. The leaders in the fight have been missing her something fierce, for tactical reasons: and if I have my guess, funding. I’ve seen rare pictures of her, I’ve seen those eyes before.

She wasn’t quite honest with me, either. Like her name. It’s another alias. I know all her aliases, though true to protocol, I don’t know her real name.

I’d gotten several leads that said she was last seen on Pan, doing exactly what I signed up to do. It’s funny – in a ha, ha, blow your brains out kind of way – that I got picked up on a mission, doing something other than my mission, to come face-to-face with the real reason all this shit went down. A fat chance. It’s almost too coincidental to be called luck.

My half-grin hurts my bruised face. It’s gone by the time I turn to be led out of my cell.

Decontamination is more or less as unpleasant as it always is. Maybe it’s worse, because this time I’m fighting with a churning mass of panic deep down in my gut. For the first time since they nabbed me, I’ve identified some goals beyond to stay alive. Adversely, the more contact I have with anyone of rank, the more of a chance of them figuring out why I disappeared.

I’d like to say the prospect of a slow, torturous death doesn’t scare the shit out of me. I’d like to be that hero I played on Pan, but it’s not me. That’s partially why I developed skill in slipping out of reach at the last minute. That and I’m smarter than most people I meet.

My eyes clench closed in anticipation of the sensation of being sand blasted by hot bits of glass. The decon machine whirs and buzzes around me. As someone medically trained, I know this part of the process is not strictly necessary. They could just as easily give us a shower.  This “dry” method saves time and water that they don’t want to waste on prisoners.

Next comes the antibacterial, antifungal, catch-all mist. I hold in a long breath. I learned the hard way that the stuff tastes like cheap brake fluid. Air hangs suspended in my lungs, and all I can think is that I have to pull off this performance or I’m a dead man.

The hiss of the chemical spray dies. My chest is tight, but I hold it is as long as I can. If I passed out, would I somehow get out of this? Not likely. I’d just feel like a bigger pile of shit.

An ear-splitting alarm blasts my skull. Moments later, the chamber door slides open. I stumble out into the holding area where a set of clean pants, shirt, and underwear wait folded on a bench. They’re grey, and without fail, too big.

My mentor in the resistance taught me meditative breathing damn near as soon as I was assigned to him. Everyone who joined up had to become a shadow, to learn protocol and basic survival. Old Crow was the only name I ever knew him by, which was how it was supposed to be. He died a few years back. Shot himself so he wouldn’t be captured. 

I force my breaths in through the nose, slowly out from the mouth. It’s such an old habit now that the jitters in my limbs are immediately soothed. It’s no new thing, either, to appear perfectly calm on the surface when a giant storm rages within. Crow used to say, “Ya got nothin’ if your poker face is shit.”

The guards rush in to slap the shackles back on then we’re out into a corridor. Offhandedly I wonder why they fuck with the hand cuffs. The entire prison could riot and win, but not a single one would survive outside of the prison walls – not without the oxygen generators and the poisonous gas purifiers. If anyone escaped, they would die out on the raw moon.

By the time I’m sitting in the back of a transporter, I’m as rocky as the brown and grey landscape. My eyes feel like I’ve been face-first in a desert, and I have to really concentrate to force my hands out of fists. We’re hovering along at something like ninety-miles-an-hour, but the scene outside my window is so vast and barren that it hardly looks like we’re moving.

I have to admit that it was smart to build a prison on an uninhabitable chunk of space junk. It completely negates the chance of an uprising. That’s why we have to travel to get to the base. They keep themselves at a distance from the “camps,” remotely controlling life support. Smart.

My gaze drifts to the big, empty entrails of the transporter. It’s a bunch of benches and me. And I’m pressed against the cold wall and window. Why would the military spring out of their purse for windows on a prison transport anyway? Like everything, it must be a way to crush the spirit.

I’ve never seen Oberon from outside the walls and fences that surround each work camp. It’s a shit show. Everything is grey rock and dust, craters and jagged mountains in the distance that remind me of the gnarled mouth of a jakka. I watch the morose scape glide by from the back of the cruiser, on the way to see Captain Deep Pockets. I could have lived forever without having seen Oberon and it would have been great.

I’m feeling some kind of way. It’s not really nervous. Maybe. It is. But it’s the kind of nervous an actor has before a live performance. Step into character. Remember the lines. If shit goes awry, lie, lie, lie. Be the artist and the art. Don’t get myself killed.

The only real reason Redding would want to see me is a report on Norna. His initial rescue of her is a mystery to me, but his interest in her body’s response to the chemical was clear. My nerves hit a patch of static at the thought of that pompous prick’s hand on my throat.

He’s a decorated captain. Decorated in what? There hasn’t actually been a war since he’s been alive, since all of human-kind had to accept the terms of seven galactic corporations in order to survive.

There’s a fantastic light storm on the distant horizon. There’s no thunder. The view is nice, because those roiling clouds are the only thing around with a little color. They’re just beginning to feather with a dusty pink, accented in blood red.

It doesn’t take long to arrive at the base. Not long enough for me to gain complete control of my nerves. My face, at least, is cold. Impassive.

When they come to get me, they blindfold me.

Motherfuckers. My jaw tightens and my stomach flips. They drag me forward by a grip on each arm. There’s no grace to be had. I feel like a lamb or a calf, freshly dropped into the mud by my standing mother. Panic makes a play for my self-control as my legs shake beneath me.

Suddenly, I can hear too much at once. Beeps, and buzzes, and a din of voices at different frequencies. At any moment, anything could hit me and I’d never see it coming. I bite back on the urge to fight. That would a good way to get dead. 

The time that follows feels like a mix of forever and parts of a second. All the noise becomes a slur, until the only thing I’m sure of are the hands gripping my arms. Breathe in through the nose, out slowly from the mouth. In, out. In. Slowly out.

We stop. There’s some talking. Military jargon. I recognize my prisoner number. Then we move forward and it’s quiet. The blindfold comes off roughly.

I don’t dare move but my eyes are everywhere. It’s an office. There’s a window that must let in a considerable bit of natural light when the sun is up. And there’s the captain, parked behind a starkly kept desk, reading a projected screen. He sits so straight that he can’t be comfortable.

I just hope my expression isn’t quite as wide open as it feels. I’ve worked past the point of trying to bolt, but there’s still an unpleasant jitter in my limbs. The last time I was blindfolded, I was hanging by my bound wrists from a chain. Then they used the tried and true method of electrocution. I didn’t talk, just screamed a lot. Somehow, I didn’t die either.

I think of her, as I seem to be doing a lot lately, when she told me they’d rape me, too. She was trying to warn me away from the fire-fight attitude that was so celebrated in our old lives. And I think of the white-hot fear I saw in her eyes when she realized I knew her. I understood her then, though she couldn’t know it. I can relate.

“Uncuff him,” says Captain Redding as he clicks the screen away.

The three seconds of hesitation that pass between the guards are apparently unacceptable, because the captain’s eyes snap to them and they jump into action. It isn’t much, but that tiny detail tells me that it’s not exactly standard protocol to remove the cuffs inside the base. Of course, the first question is why has he chosen to break the rules. 

I was a fool to believe I ever had any ground with this money’s son. I’m so far beneath him I couldn’t reach him in a long-range cruiser transport. I couldn’t catch him in a fighter ship. I’m sure as hell not stupid enough to speak first, so I continue to not move as the pressure disappears from my wrists.

Strategy. That’s what I was talking myself up to on the ride here. I sure did. That doesn’t mean I have one. 

“Dismissed,” the captain says in a tone that sounds honed on twenty years of telling servants to fuck off. He doesn’t even look at my guards as he says it.

He doesn’t look at me either. He’s picked up a hand-held and is pecking some sort of directives or notes into it with his thumbs. He could be talking dirty to some trophy trick from the conglomerate’s upper wrung of debutantes. He could be activating troops to certain places. They both sound about as equally dry.

The guards hesitate again, maybe for only two seconds this time. They salute and their boots make heavy thuds as they leave. He doesn’t look up, so I do a quick scan of the room.

There are no decorations. No digital pictures of anything, no Academy graduation or family. There’s nothing. This guy is four walls and a desk that he looks like he owns, but at which I don’t believe he spends much time.

When the door closes, Captain Redding sets down the hand-held and nails me with a level gaze. Strategy. Don’t give him more than he asks for. Don’t give him exactly what he asks for. Don’t fuck up.

Was he quick enough to realize I was staring at the window?

Don’t move. Don’t speak. What the fuck is he playing, just staring at me? Of course, it has to be a tactic of some kind. I’m staring back, thinking I’m about to get myself killed because this is going to be an epic stare-down.

“The first question is why?” he says.

Why? There are a million becauses and no answers I want to give him. Wait it out, don’t be a dumbass. I’m concentrating so hard on not looking away that I let my right eyebrow inch upward; an implied echo. Why? Why fucking what?

He says, “Justin Makara. You were the top of every class. You earned everything you could ever want because of academic scores alone. Yet you ran.”

Some fucking strategist I am. I never considered we’d be talking about me. I haven’t heard someone say my name in so long that it sounds strange. I’ve spent the last few months being extremely relieved that they didn’t know my ties to AnCon, completely ignoring the nightmare that comes with my legitimate past.

Lie, or scrape some hide off of the truth? More importantly, don’t make a face. In the nose, out the mouth. 

I say, “I guess helping old, rich people live longer wasn’t my style.”

Well, there it is. I can’t say I thought that response through. You know what else isn’t my style? Strategizing. Sometimes, I wish I could be patient enough to think through a situation, be more like Old Crow. Except I never do. I just run with it.

For another agonizing stretch, we stare at each other. At least I took something from my old mentor. I developed a mean poker face and a knack for bullshit. Something tells me it’s a good thing. I bet the good Captain plays chess for fun.

Finally, his eyes narrow just the slightest. He says, “Your parents participated in a multi-conglomerate program that paid for the genetic engineering of thousands of children. The money they received from that program allowed them to live more comfortably than a lot of people at their income level. In exchange, you graduated medical school, which they still couldn’t afford despite the program. Here you are, because old, rich people funded everything.”

Several reactions fire at once: My body feels like the bottom end of my esophagus drops into the lowest pit of my gut; cold, familiar rage rears its head and roars; and my inner dialogue says, “He’s good.”

The rage is directly related. My parents basically sold me to the system before I was even born. They were paid so that the conglomerates could breed a doctor. Then they followed through and sent me to med school. I lived most of my life not knowing that, thinking I was naturally intelligent. When I found out…he has the gaul to ask me why.

“They funded a system that gave them slave labor, I doubt it hurt that much,” I say. I hear myself form every word in an even enough tone, while my brain screams in horror at each one.

Maybe he never rushes to speak. He watches me with open calculation, so straightforward that I’ll knock myself off-balance if I don’t focus on something. I’m not even sure if he’s blinked since I walked in, his expression has changed so little.

He says, “That sentiment earned a hefty sentence for you.”

For all my bravado, the truth is raw and bleeding at this point. There’s another little lie I told to Norna. Resisting Arrest was my initial charge when they picked me up on Pan. Once they figured out I had a record, the list rolled out like a red carpet. That spot-lit, dusty moment spawned a field of regrets.

Strategy. If I had planned anything at all, I might have noticed how stupid it was to volunteer for such a high-profile gig. I might have really thought about the fact that if I got caught, it would be a death sentence. At this moment, I wonder if she might have a similar story. All that time spent mending her broken wings, and I didn’t ask once about the useful facts. How did they get her? Who was she before? How did Captain Miloh fucking Redding become so involved in her recovery?

This is not an argument, so I say, “Yes, it did.”

Humility is not a hat I try on often. I’m pretty sure my tone doesn’t match. Anger flashes in my eyes brighter than the standard super nova. The anger is painful, in a way. There’s no outlet for it. I can’t fight, can’t even raise my voice. I sure as hell can’t fuck the pain away. The truth at the bloody bottom of it all is that I’m never leaving this rock, not unless they take me to another “prison planet” – as they optimistically call them.

Redding is still watching me. His person as a whole hasn’t moved, but now I believe there’s a hint of amusement, or something akin to it, in his eyes. Time ticks past and my belief that he’s testing me grows less ethereal. If he’s read my record, he knows I’m smart, so what’s his deal now?

Finally, he moves. He rests his arms on the desk in front of him, and his hands slide together. He reminds me of some old, old school gangster, except for all the decorations that adorn his uniform.

He says, “So we’re back to the first question. Do you have a better answer?”

Into what fresh hell have I woken? I don’t even give a shit that I’m giving myself away. I let my eyes drop to slits of suspicion. It’s as open of a reaction as his heavy, silent attention.

There’s only a certain degree of intelligence to which I’ll stoop. By his rules, I’m already less than him. I’m not in the mood for some beginner intimidation. Mostly, I don’t actually have myself together to withstand a direct onslaught.

Do I have a better answer? What is this, some kind of interview? I think I will presume my silence is enough of an answer.

Once, lawyers were required before you were sentenced for crimes. Now, only people who can afford them get a defense. Everyone else is simply guilty. I don’t have a lawyer and I don’t have a better answer. That one was perfect. This is a fine mess of shaky nerves and stubbornness. 

He takes a slow, inaudible breath that I can only trace by the slight movement of his shoulders.  He says, “I don’t have the time to waste on this child’s game of wits. The ultimate truth is that it’s a waste of ability to have you here, treating hopeless prisoners, when you were born for the medical arts.”

For an indefinite stretch of time, my thoughts chug slowly like a stern wheel – spewing out the back as the rest get caught in the momentum. This feels like the beginning of what you could call a bad time. Comply or die. That’s what we said in the – 

“So you have a better idea.”

I say it. It could have been a question. It sounds more like a challenge. What am I doing?

“Yes, I do,” he says, as flatly as he’s said everything else.

When he doesn’t continue, I bite my tongue. This is the part when I’m supposed to ask what his grand scam is. I hold my scrutinizing gaze, as least I hope my expression is what I think it is. I don’t believe him and I don’t want him to think I do. If this were a game of Faces, I’d have a bunch of low number cards to his royal run.

If I had pockets, I’d casually slide my hands into them and wait. But I don’t even have pockets. That’s what my life has amounted to. I’m feeling a little awkward, standing here with hands hanging useless at my sides.

He says, “I’ve petitioned to reassign your sentence duties. I don’t have the official approval back, but let’s say I have it on good authority that I will not be denied.”

He’s spoon feeding me, still baiting me even after he said he didn’t have time for such things. Most likely, he’s trying to get a good read on the real me, not the idiot upstart who ran his mouth at all the wrong times.

Nobody gets off this rock. Yesterday, I said that. What had she said? You do if you make a deal with the devil. Does anyone even believe in omens any more? It’s not those words that bring the goose bumps to the surface of my skin. It’s what else she said. A true enemy of the establishment would take the chance to attack from within.

“You will be under my supervision, tending to soldiers. We’ll start small, and if you can handle it well, maybe I won’t send you back here to the mines,” he says, unperturbed that I haven’t even wiggled close to his trap.

Thoughts fire like scatter shot. How many could I let die without repercussion? How much information could I gather about the inner workings of the military, and how useful would it really be? Now how am I going to keep my word about getting her out of here? How would I reestablish communication with those who sent me to find her?

I think I love and hate her. Why did I tell her my real name? She didn’t tell me hers. Maybe it was her raspy voice, or those startling eyes. Or the way she’s broken, but a stubborn beauty still clings to her.

“What’s the catch?” I say.

“The catch is that if you don’t screw up, you get to serve your time nobly,” he says without missing a beat.

This is happening. On the surface, his move is real fucking stupid. Why would anyone trust a guy who shook the system to suddenly turn coat. Of course, they don’t know what I’ve been up to since I scooped. Inevitably, I wonder what the odds are of escape.

“When do I start?” I ask, carefully keeping the sarcastic edge in my tone. I don’t want him to think I’m eager. I also don’t want him to think I’m reluctant. If I can scale back on the attitude just a bit, not lose it completely but slip it in here and there, I’ll get a good idea of what I can get away with.

There’s a tiny twist playing with his lips. It could almost be a smile, and not a friendly one.

He says, “When I get the approval the process will begin. There are certain precautions we will take to prevent escape attempts, and some psychological examination.”

Shit. Well, there’s that. How to handle this with a little finesse?

He has a level gaze out of brown eyes that haven’t shied from mine since the guards left. It’s unnerving and I’m sure that’s the point. He says, “I’d say you’ll have just enough time to see your last patient back to her yard.”

The breath I’ve controlled so well to this point hangs in my throat. My eyes widen despite myself. I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring her up and he’s just beat me to it. Finesse be damned. If it’s the real me he wants, I might as well give him a little. Just a glimpse of the fury that sparks at his nonchalance.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to save her if you’re just going to send her back to the same place,” I say. That feels like something a doctor would say, someone who cares about helping people.

His eyes narrow and his head cocks an inch to the left. He’s still holding the damn eye contact. Maybe that’s why his slight reaction is so glaring. I’ve caught him off-guard, even if just the smallest bit. It’s impossible to know in what way. Again, I’m wishing I had at least gotten a few details on how or why the captain is involved in her recovery.

“That … is not of your concern, nor mine,” he says. The hesitation is so slight I could have imagined it.

Bullshit. Send me in to put my eyes between some broad’s legs, knowing immediately that she would die if you don’t act fast, then tell me I shouldn’t care what becomes of her once I’ve saved her. My teeth grind.

“Then why save her at all? Why not let her bleed out? Surely it cost more in medical supplies to treat her than it would to toss another body into the incinerator,” I say. My voice is strained from my effort not to let it get louder.

He’s quiet long enough for me to start believing that I’ve already made a grave mistake. It’s harder than ever to be still. Any sudden movements could get me shot, and any other outlets for anger can’t help me now. When he stands and walks slowly around the desk until he’s in front of me, I’m waiting for the blow to fall.

He’s half a foot taller than I am, so he’s looking down at me. His expression seems more or less the same, but his eyes have hardened.

That is something you either understand already, or never will,” he says, soft in volume, but firm of word. “It comes down to moral code, Justin Makara. I don’t believe rape is ever ok, but it’s not my responsibility for whatever charges landed her out here. You would do well to remember in the future that there will never come a time when I need to explain myself to you.”

I seem to have struck a sore spot. If I’m not mistaken, that’s defensiveness in his reaction. My inner fox smiles. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if he’s so hard on the surface, yet soft inside. It would make sense. He’s young to be so ranked, probably hasn’t seen a lot of real action.

I don’t know if he expects me to start driveling like a soldier – yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, Captain. It will never happen. I won’t cower in his presence, though it takes a considerable amount of self-control not to step backward.

I told myself I wouldn’t give him much of the real, but the words are a big, smoking locomotive that force themselves out into the high-quality air of his office.

“My moral code says most of the people I’ve met in here were grabbed for minor infractions that were hardly worth the harsh sentences handed out. My code wonders how many women did bleed out because some degenerate piece of shit got off on shoving a rifle inside of them? My gut says those guards will be gunning for her.”

I find that I’ve clasped my hands behind my back to keep them out of trouble. Don’t want the captain getting spooked. He could beat the holy hell out of me for less. I think he might, if he weren’t such a control freak.

“You are surprisingly idealistic, perhaps a little naive,” he says, regaining that sharp, calculating look.

That’s not exactly right, but I can play the fool. I’ll let him believe that’s what fuels me.

“I have a heart, that’s all,” I answer with a shrug.

“As I’m sure they will be missing your heart at the infirmary if I keep you too long. You are dismissed to await further direction.”

That’s his answer to my grand performance? I’ve definitely hit a nerve.

I don’t say another word as he retrieves his hand-held and presses a few buttons. As the guards put the shackles back on, I keep my eyes on the captain. He watches me, too, and I feel like his gaze is a little softer, maybe more speculative. Maybe that’s my expression.

I don’t believe I’ve made any kind of step toward getting her out of here. That’s when it really sinks in that soon, if I can’t figure something out, I’ll never see her again.

When they blindfold me this time, I don’t even flinch.

Published by ajthewordwitch

Writing is in my bones, my blood, and my heart.

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