Kael awoke with the crash of a rifle's blooded stock to her skull.
She laid stripped bare against a gritty, rusted metal wall, wounds agape. Ten loops of braided rope bound each wrist. Blood streamed down her naked body and dripped upon the fetid, piss-stained floor. Shock and trauma had settled from the injuries, and a vicious cold wracked her lungs with increasing violence.
"'Cause ya blew 'em up, mate," said a deep British drawl. "Ya fuckin' killed 'em!"
Kael tried to make sense of the situation, but she couldn't gather her thoughts. Who did she kill?
The man grabbed Kael by the face--brutal hard fingers dug into her cheeks--made her look him right in the eyes. He was at least a head taller than Kael. A rough, stony face with a scraggly mop of black hair, set with intense blue eyes not of ice but an inferno--electric blue plasma. Such malice in his eyes that she thought he might vaporize her where she was.
"Because ya fuckin' blew them up. THAT'S WHY!"
Kael didn't remember asking any questions; all she remembered was fighting for her life in the rainforest. She had no idea how long she'd been here, but from the terrible dents on his rifle's stock and the cuts on her body, she guessed they must've tortured her for a while.
She finally managed to speak: "what do you want from me?"
"What do I want!? No, no fucking way--it's what those fucking assholes want!"
The man who she identified as 'The Brit' from his accent turned away to leave, but not before he cracked the bent and dented stock across her head. The instrument sounded dull, but she still felt a sharp ringing sound sting into what felt like swollen eardrums.
The rifle's blooded stock sliced into her skull--again, again and again, and Kael opened her mouth to scream but no sound came; a spell of vertigo hit, then vomit rushed out her open mouth--spilled down her naked form to the ground, followed by dry heaving.
She came to her senses moments later, when a cold draft seeped into the prison cell, bit deeply into her wounds, yet barely dragged her back into full consciousness. Pass out, she pleaded to her body, her soul. Please, just pass out and free me.
But the moment never came, and she remained somewhere between wakefulness and unconsciousness. When she closed her eyes, dizziness spun her world and cast her into the eternal abject misery of trying to vomit on an empty stomach; she endured the sight and stink of her wounded, scarred and dirtied body.
Sometime later--she didn't know when--another man returned with a bowl in hand. He stared with utter bewilderment that confounded her, but shrugged and approached her cell. Shorter than the Brit, but still taller than her, and if she had to guess of Hispanic descent. He wore cylindrical charge capacitors from a Gauss sniper rifle like a belt around his waist.
The man entered the cell and placed the bowl in the middle of the room. He then released her restraints just enough to let her crawl through a pool of her own filth to drink the gruel from the bowl like a dog. He opened his mouth as if to ask her something, then just walked away and made sure to lock the cell behind him.
Kael warily glanced around, and in vain searched for any flaw in the cell to exploit. The angle at which pale light broke through the mangled bars of the small ceiling-high windows wrought twisted shadows and cold fluorescence upon the gritty steel floor.
As she fell asleep, she remembered over one year ago, when she had such overwhelming power over Miranda during the fight at the bus stop and nearly beat her half to death simply because she could. "I am so sorry," Kael said to the friend that wasn't there. "I'll try to be as strong as you are, so I can tell you how truly sorry I am on my own."
She wondered why she was still alive; Sergeant Major Velasquez taught them that Ghosts almost never took prisoners because they could barely feed themselves and their families--never mind captured enemy combatants as well.
The next day, Kael awoke to the sound of footsteps. She heard The Brit and some woman argue down the hallway, beneath the thudding footsteps as they draw closer and stopped in front of the cell. Kael instantly recoiled in horror because of the familiar patchwork armor the woman wore, like the assassin she fought in the rainforest.
In fact, it was her; the cast on her wrist said it all.
"Just open the fucking cell," she said.
"Look, I didn't kill her, alright? You can see that yourself--" the Brit fumbled with a key ring for precisely two seconds before the woman just calmly kicked the cell door off its hinges and entered.
"Well, enjoy fixing that then, bitch."
The woman ignored him and fast walked to Kael.
Kael instinctively crawled backwards into the corner, bloodshot eyes wide.
The woman glanced her over, then turned to the Brit: "What the fuck is this shit, Murdoch?"
"What? How fucked up she is? Cause I didn't rape her--"
"Bet that'll go well when I have to explain you only 'lightly' tortured her. I'd rather you did rape her rather than slice her up like that; every scratch is ten thousand pissed away!"
"Yeah, 'cause a cunt like you is suddenly a bloody diplomat?"
"No, but I'm not losing my share just because of a few trigger happy morons."
"Say that shit back to my face, Claire. Say that shit to me when you lose your fucking people."
"Alright, alright. I'm sorry. Look...just get her cleaned up."
"Fuck you," the Brit carelessly tossed the key ring at her helmet and stormed off.
The woman sighed as she turned to kneel at Kael's level, and to foster an approachable front, took her helmet off. She looked dangerous even as she tried to smile all the same. The thin dreadlocks she had were cut at the base of the neck, short enough to avoid getting in the way.
"Hey, Princess. I won't let anyone else hurt you."
Kael remained tight lipped.
"Try to relax," Claire continued, but with eyes colder than steel, grey as ash--so devoid of emotion it was like staring into an abyss. There was nothing in her eyes, absolutely nothing at all. It was the most terrifying thing Kael ever saw.
"You tried to kill me," Kael muttered.
"Oh yeah," Claire stared off with an amused smile, then leaned closer, her voice a conspirator whisper. "I'll tell you a secret: I should be the one terrified here. I had you where I wanted. I fucking had you, then suddenly you broke my wrist and damn near killed me, of all people."
Kael said nothing.
"Alright...let's not get bogged down with who tried to kill whom," Claire continued. "Everyone got a nasty surprise, but all of a sudden you're now worth double alive to my employers. Come on," Claire offered a hand, "let's get you cleaned up and some breakfast rations."
Kael shook her head in refusal. She wanted to ask why someone was trying to have her killed, how long they imprisoned and tortured her and where she was, but kept her mouth shut for now; she knew a psychopath when she saw one.
"Still worried about that sour old bastard? Well, you don't have to worry about him anymore. Now," Claire sternly insisted, "come with me. Please?"
It took Kael a moment to catch the oddly specific consolations along with implied threats, and genuine mental effort to realize she'd be a damn fool if she didn't take this woman's hand, right there and then.
After breakfast, Kael rinsed away the soap and stepped out from the shower. It hurt to breathe too sharply, but she noticed the wound at her left lung was stitched and bandaged, and the cuts on her body had already closed. She found Claire in the locker room with a duffel bag, who seemed for the moment preoccupied as she anxiously fished within the luggage for something.
There, a crushed pack of cigarettes, but Claire cursed and continued to search for a lighter. Fresh clothes flew in Kael's general direction: black Capri pants, a white tank top, and an arm band, along with jogging shoes and lotion.
"At. Fucking. Last," Claire sighed as she struck up a cigarette and drew in a powerful drag.
Kael picked the clothes up and toweled off on a nearby bench. It occurred to her that she could momentarily overpower this Claire and be on her way, but she didn't know where to go from there, so she made the best of this quiet moment.
Lotioned skin, fresh clothes and new shoes--Kael secretly felt great, and for some reason it all made her feel like a brand new person, yet the dread coiled in her gut never left. Worse, she thought, these fuckers are mercenaries. Just because she said no one else will hurt me doesn't mean that she won't, or that things will stay that way forever.
"Come on," Claire said. "You've got a meeting."
Kael followed Claire from the locker rooms and back into the long hallway. The empty cells, along with the dim fluorescent lights behind them and the low ceiling made her feel like a prisoner being released by the least attentive warden in the universe.
No handcuffs and with your back to me? Kael thought. I'm almost insulted.
She'd realized she was aboard a salvaged prison ship while in the shower, when the ground listed almost imperceptibly then immediately leveled off. Between the fact that the brutal lung puncture had been operated on and that she was aboard a star ship for what must've been weeks, Kael assumed she was dozens of light years away.
Kael and Claire finally stepped inside the air lock and got cycled to the half way door. Once through, the rest of the mercenaries waited on the other side.
Murdoch had a distant gaze in his blue eyes; the antique biker gear he wore made it hard to take him too seriously. To his left was the Mexican, in a dress shirt and black pants--cylindrical charge capacitor belt and all--with a holster for his sidearm; he didn't look too happy to see her.
"Well then," Murdoch said, "let's go. Mark didn't get dressed up for nothing."
Murdoch paced toward the elevator, and everyone followed him.
Up top, the elevator doors cracked open and slid apart. Beyond, utter darkness; a lone beacon of light at the center of the room ahead beckoned them. Once at this beacon, the surrounding became dimly visible.
There were grim holographic portraits of devils, monsters and demons hung upside-down and at odd angles in mid-air. It looked like a circle of hell, and the dread welled up in Kael's gut seized her all at once.
A lone hologram monolith hung high in the air above them, ebony cut from the shadows. Kael tried to remain silent and unseen, but knew the effort was worthless. She felt exposed, watched. She remembered the same nervous terror when bullets were flying, the enemy was nowhere to be seen, and people were dying.
"We count five bandages," a disembodied voice echoed from the monolith--grotesque, distorted, sly, dirty with sin. "Snipers, heavy infantry, this ship, everything timed to the minute, and this is all you could do. We're starting to wonder if we wasted our time."
"With respect," the Mexican started, "she wasn't alone. Someone, something hit US. Enemy snipers, fairies or vengeful revenants--I can't tell you what it was, but one second we were taking shots at a bunch of panicked kids and the next our missiles just detonate in mid air and nearly every man we had died with a bullet through the head."
"Right between the eyes," Murdoch carried the next statement. "We're talking accuracy down to the fucking millimeter. Whatever it was, it wasn't human, and before you get your package I want to know what my people died fighting."
"Sentry Droids, obviously," the monolith answered. "They must've been camouflaged. We're sorry for your loss. We gave you all the information and weapons we had at our disposal to get the job done. Now," a worrying pause from the monolith, "let us inspect the package."
Kael finally started to see the truth. She was caught in the middle of two interested parties: one wanted her captured or killed, and the other thought she was important enough to have this Arya--whatever it was--keep an eye on her. One of those parties was right there in front of her with at least half the answers.
"Why did you kidnap me? I haven't done anything."
"I'd stay behind that hologram," Kael calmly cut the monolith off--an act that made the mercenaries nearly jolt back in surprise. "And pray you never let me see any of you with my own eyes after what you did to my friends, to me."
"Please, stop. You've always been terrible at mind games. We'll meet in time. A few days, in fact. These hard working people need their money. Then again, it's no surprise a blunt instrument like yourself still doesn't understand anything about--"
"--I find it funny," Kael cut in, again, "how you chose a monolith to represent this nebulous 'we'. Tacky, but I like it. Where did you steal that idea from?"
"The finest Japanese animation, " the monolith laughed. "Such raw impudence. It seems you truly are who you appear to be. Most of your thought-patterns are in line with those our battle processor predicted."
"You even used an A.I to guess my every move. I'm flattered."
"We look forward to your progress, but must continue this conversation in person. As for the rest of you, the road should be clear so we expect your delivery on time."
"Okay, so...no more complications then." Murdoch laughed. "Are you sure?"
"There shouldn't be any trouble, unless you brought it with you."
"Not hiding anything from us, are you now?"
"Don't be ridiculous. That'd be counterproductive. Murdoch you're in charge; Mark, cover everyone's back; Claire, secure the package."
The monolith faded, and the elevator doors far behind them slid open.