Chapter 2: I Make Some New Friends
I woke up knowing that my family and friends were all dead.
The last thing I could remember was the look of desperation on my older sister’s face as she kicked out the support that dumped thousands of tons of sand on her and the pirates trying to capture us. I thought, then, as the ceiling collapsed in a roar that I was going to die too.
From the fact that I was awake, I guess I’d been wrong about that.
I opened my eyes, squinting at the harsh light. My head felt, weird, like I’d been drugged. My first assumption was that I was in a hospital or something.
As I looked around, I realized that I was wrong about that, too. Dreadfully wrong.
I was in a cold, metal room, with a single overhead light. I wasn’t on a hospital bed or even a cot, I was flat on my back on the floor. The rust-spotted walls were almost featureless, but I could feel a rumble of machinery through my back, in contact with the steel deck. I guessed that meant I was on a ship, though it could also mean I was on a station.
Either way, I supposed I was in space, which, all things being equal, was a bad sign. If I’d been rescued, they would have taken me planetside somewhere.
I sat up, wincing as my head throbbed. My mouth was dry as the desert and I fumbled around, looking for anything to eat or drink. I didn’t see anything. In fact, other than the stained and dirty pants and shirt I wore, the only thing in the cell-like room was me. There was a door on the far wall, a metal hatch that didn’t have a handle on this side. I stood up, only to find my legs trembling and the room began to spin. I had to reach out a hand and catch myself, leaning on the bulkhead so I wouldn’t fall.
I squinted up at the light, wondering if I could use it somehow, but it was covered over with a wire mesh and that was welded to the ceiling. I didn’t have any tools and this wasn’t like one of the entertainment modules I’d enjoyed as a kid. I wasn’t the plucky kid hero who’d outsmart the pirates and get back home.
After all, I didn’t have a home anymore. My family was dead.
The realization hit me again, this time like a physical blow. I sagged against the wall, sliding down until I was seated on the cold metal deck. I brought my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them, in turn. I put my head down and fought back tears. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t right. I wanted to see my dad. I wanted to see my mom. I even missed my bossy older sister, who at least had been less obnoxious since she started at the Academy.
I’d never see any of them ever again. They were gone. The pirates, the same ones who’d locked me in here, had killed them. My mother, my father, my sister, they’d all died fighting. Here I was, still alive. It wasn’t fair.
Who said life is fair? My internal voice sounded an awful lot like my older sister or possibly my mom. I let out a shuddering breath. What had happened had happened. Fair or not, that didn’t come into it. The pirates who’d killed my family, they had me as their prisoner. I might not be the hero in an entertainment module, but I could still try to escape. And even if I couldn’t escape, I owed it to my parents, to my sister, to all the people at Black Mesa Outpost to at least try to escape, to bear witness, and to do what I could to bring these hocking pirates to justice.
Despite the chill of the room, I found my rage was sufficient to keep me warm.
I was ready when the door opened.
A tall, skinny boy came through the hatch, holding a tray. I lunged for him, but I was still pretty weak and I wasn’t as fast as I would have liked. He saw me coming.
He let out a girlish shriek and dropped the tray. “Don’t hurt me!” He flinched back against the wall.
That was strange enough that I froze, staring at him in confusion. “Who are you?” I demanded.
“I’m Ted! Ted Meeks! Please don’t hurt me!”
“Well, that’s just great,” I muttered. I looked from him to the door, which had slammed shut behind him. A slot opened on the hatch and I got a brief glimpse of eyes, then the slot slid closed. Apparently they didn’t care what happened here.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I ground the words out. I felt defeated. I’d thought I could at least take out some anger on one of my captors, but I got the feeling that Ted here wasn’t anyone’s captor. “What’s going on?”
“They captured you, a few weeks ago,” Ted whispered, slumping down against the wall. I stared at him, taking in details as much as I could. His skin hung off him, as if he’d lost a lot of weight. He had a nervous, almost mouse-like expression, and his complexion was pale, like he hadn’t seen the the light of day in months or years. “I didn’t have anything to do with it, they captured me too, a while back.” He shuddered. “At first I thought they were going to kill you. Whatever you did, Wessek’s son, Vars, really doesn’t like you.”
“Wessek?” I asked. I sort of remembered that name. “Wait… did you say weeks ago?”
Ted nodded in a quick, jerky motion. “They kept you drugged. They like to do that, when they…” He swallowed and pointed at the back of his head, “when they put the implant in.”
“Implant?” I demanded, reaching a hand back behind my head. I found scar tissue, there. It wasn’t clean, either, I could feel a long scar running along the top of my spine, right where it joined with my skull. “What did they– What did they do?!”
“It’s a control implant,” Ted said weakly. “They put one in me, too. And others.” He shivered. “They put it in all their slaves. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“I’m no man’s slave,” I rejected the very thought. I stumbled away from him and my back hit the wall behind me. I slumped down, staring at Ted in a mixture of shock and horror. “How long have you been here?” I asked finally.
“I don’t know… years, maybe?” Ted shrugged. “They were going to kill me or sell me off, but then they found I was an accountant in training so Wessek kept me around.” He rubbed at his face, as if looking for glasses that weren’t there. “I stumbled onto some crazy book-keeping stuff at Champion Enterprises and—”
“Wait,” I interrupted, my head perking up as I realized why his name was familiar. “Champion Enterprises? Jiden mentioned you, you were another intern there, one who helped her uncover the smuggling ring!”
Ted blinked at me in shock. “Well, yeah… I was. You know Jiden Armstrong, then? I mean, she actually survived? I thought they’d killed her, like they told me they were going to… like they said they’d kill me if I didn’t do what they told me to do.”
“They didn’t kill her,” I told him. Then I felt the rush of pain and anguish, “Well, they hadn’t. I’m her brother, Will Armstrong. She killed a few of the smugglers who tried to kidnap her and then she went to the Academy.” I shook my head, “The Enforcers said you were dead. They had a funeral, if I remember right.”
“Jiden is still alive?” Ted shook his head. “That’s amazing… but they thought I was dead?” His expression fell, “Oh, man, my parents… gosh, I can’t imagine what they’re going through.” He let out a little sob, “That explains why no one ever came looking for me, I guess. Everyone thought I was dead…” He sat back, looking stunned.
“It’s okay,” I said. “The authorities will know what happened at Black Mesa Outpost. They’ll…” I trailed off then, as I realized that there wasn’t very much they could do. If we were on a station or ship, then we could be anywhere. “Where are we?” I asked.
“Wessek’s ship,” Ted sounded miserable. Then again, I’d just told him that everyone thought he was dead. “Probably headed to one of his bases.”
“His bases?” I asked.
“He has a few of them,” Ted shrugged. He rubbed at his face. I thought he was wiping away tears, but I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t imagine what he’d been through in the past few years, a prisoner to pirates who’d threatened to kill him. He sighed, then, and stretched out on the deck, reaching for the tray he’d dropped. On his hands and knees, he picked up the tray, then the overturned bowl and the two cups on it. I watched in confusion as he carefully scraped what looked like gruel, off the floor and back into the bowl.
“Want something to eat?” Ted asked in resignation.
“That’s our food?” I asked in shok.
“Well, it was,” he admitted, staring down at the gruel, with bits of dirt and rust from the deck plates in it. “Water to drink and foot to eat… they won’t give us anything else, either.”
“Us?” I asked, staring at him. The tiny bowl seemed inadequate for one person’s meal, much less two.
“Yeah, they aren’t too happy with you. They said I could share my food, if you woke up, but I think Vars really doesn’t like you,” Ted sighed. “Not that he likes anyone, but I guess Wessek put him in charge of capturing you and some others, and I overheard that Vars only got you, so…” Ted shrugged.
“So Vars is in trouble with his dad, that’s good, right?” I asked.
“Except he’s probably going to kill you,” Ted answered. “Then I’ll be alone again.” He sipped at a little bit of the water left in one of the cups. “If you’re going to eat or drink, you’d better do it now. Otherwise I’ll eat it all.”
My throat was screaming at me to remind me how thirsty I was and my stomach rumbled, telling me I hadn’t eaten in weeks. I moved over and sat across from Ted. I took the other glass of water. Like the other stuff on the tray, it had mostly spilled. There was a tiny bit of water left in the flimsy plastic cup and I sipped at it. It had a harsh, metallic taste, like it had been through a recycler too many times.
I didn’t care, not just then. I let the water soak into my parched mouth and then took another sip, fighting the urge to gulp it down in a single swig.
“Food?” Ted asked.
I wrinkled my nose at the thin gruel in the bowl, complete with bits of dirt and flakes of rust from the floor. “No,” I said, forcing myself to smile in thanks, “You can have it.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Ted muttered. He slurped the whole bowl down in a single motion, then held it up to get the last little drops. “It doesn’t taste good and it’s not very filling… but it’s all we get.” He gave me a weak smile.
“We?” I asked, “Have there been other prisoners?”
“Yeah, quite a few,” Ted admitted. “Wessek likes to take prisoners, most of the time he takes them back to one of his bases for questioning. I don’t know what happens after that, but Vars told me that he gets to kill any that don’t do as they’re told.”
I hadn’t even met Vars and I already hated him.
“Tell me about Wessek, and the ship, and any of his personnel you know or have dealt with,” I said.
“Why?” Ted asked. He inched away from me and put his back against the wall, staring at me with dull, tired eyes.
“Because, maybe we can use that information to escape,” I fought the frustration down. Ted was my only resource, I couldn’t afford to get him angry with me. For that matter, he’d been through a lot in the past few years. I couldn’t judge him based off how he was now.
“That’s pointless,” he noted. “Even if we could escape, most of his bases are on airless moons, we’d just die. Besides, there’s the implants they gave us. Wessek or Vars could just kill us outright with those.”
“We can’t give up,” I told him, talking to myself as much as him. “We’ll find a way to survive and escape. I promise you, Ted, I will get you out of here. I’ll get you home.”
Those words tasted like ashes in my mouth, though. I didn’t have a home, or a family. Not anymore.
Ted seemed to perk up at that. “You really think? I’d… I’d almost given up any hope at all.” His gaze went distant. “Okay, so Wessek, he’s a big guy. Really scary. Talks nice to you one second and then he’s got a knife out the next, threatening to cut off your fingers.” Ted shuddered. “His pirates, they’re all scared of him, man. And his son, Vars, he’s even meaner. He’s not as big, but he doesn’t even pretend to be nice.”
“The ship?” I asked.
“Wessek’s cruiser, the Zairan,” Ted answered. “It’s an old ship, Wessek isn’t big on spending money on stuff like paint.” He waved a hand at the rusty metal walls of our cell. “Wessek says he won it in some kind of game, but I couldn’t tell you how it’s armed or anything like that. There’s hundreds of pirates onboard. I know Wessek has two other ships, I’ve seen cost reports on them.” Ted made a face, “Wessek hates how expensive his ships are, he’s always telling me to cut costs however I can, but parts are expensive and—”
“Okay,” I interrupted, “What about his bases, you said there’s several?”
“At least three. One of them is in Century’s outer system. We left there a few days ago. Wessek left his other ships there, I think. They have some kind of deal worked out with the Enforcers…”
“Wait, what?” I demanded. The Enforcers were Century’s police force. They had authority over stopping smuggling and criminal endeavors like piracy.
“Wessek brags about it. I guess he knows someone in the government. He didn’t tell me the details or anything, but he’s connected. And he’s got some kind of connections in other places too. Like when I told him one of his ships was really low on antimatter, he just sent off a message. A few weeks later, a military ship of some kind showed up at his base and they transferred it. Even his pirates were impressed.”
“Okay, so where are we going?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ted admitted. “Sometimes Wessek visits some of his other bases. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months. We might be doing some kind of raid or attack.” Ted shuddered. “I really hope it’s not that, Vars always comes back and brags about how many people they killed.” I got the feeling that Vars terrified Ted even more than Wessek. At this point, I was honestly surprised that Ted wasn’t crazy. Maybe he was tougher than he looked.
“These bases, what are they like?” I asked.
“The one at Century is some old mining station on an asteroid. Wessek had it retrofitted to hold air, but it’s really just a few habitat spaces bolted on to the surface of an asteroid. There’s not much to talk about there. There’s another two I’ve been to before, both of them on airless moons.”
“How do you know they’re airless?” I asked.
“There’s portholes in some of the outer areas, and airlocks,” Ted answered. “You can see outside, nothing but empty rock and starry skies.”
That didn’t sound promising. “No bases in cities or inhabitable planets?” I asked. Someplace like that, maybe we could escape and find some way back to Century, at least.
Ted just shook his head, looking miserable. “I tried to escape… once. Wessek had Vars beat me until I couldn’t move. I hadn’t even managed to get off that level, I just managed to get to a computer terminal that wasn’t locked down… and that’s when Wessek found me.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I remembered a little of what Jiden had told me about Ted. He’d been cheerful, helpful. I hadn’t paid much attention, beyond remembering how sad she looked, thinking about the friend that she’d gotten killed.
Only he wasn’t dead. He’d been here, trapped, working for a pirate who regularly threatened to kill him and had him beaten when he stepped out of line.
“Don’t worry,” I told him with as much confidence as I could, “we’ll get out of here. I promise.”
Valor’s Cost is out today!
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“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins
Since there’s some rather… impactful events that happen in the first chapters, I will not be snippeting Valor’s cost. But it will be out and live on 28 September. Mark down the date!
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