Serenity: Those Who Stare into the Black....

Stimulus/Response

Every action has its consequences ...

From the private journal of Oksana Arkadyevna Vernadskaya, M.D.
Translated from Russian




Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1830 hrs, local time

The red emergency lights were dim but was it still bright enough to see. The color reminded me of the blood in our cargo hold. Two men had been killed by chameleon-suited assassins and I strained to detect that odd air-bending effect that betrayed their presence. I saw nothing. That didn’t mean no one was there. I didn’t linger in the corridor but entered med bay through my quarters for cover.

The usual scatter of lights from the equipment was absent in the ruddy glow. The shadows were deeper and able to hide any number of things. I steeled myself to step all the way inside. I swept the room and saw nothing out of place but in the murk it would be easy to miss something… a fact borne home a second later when someone grabbed me from behind. A steely arm wrapped around my neck and squeezed. The blood in my head instantly grew thin.

Sleeper hold.

I had only seconds before I blacked out. I pulled a sedative patch from my pocket and slapped it against my attacker’s thigh. Body armor made my palm sting on impact. The patch wouldn’t get past it. A rag swathed my face then and I caught the unmistakable stench of chloroform. No one would bother chloroforming a corpse. That told me they meant to keep me alive. And that frightened me more than the attack itself.

I held my breath and fought him, trying every trick I knew, but there was no escaping the inevitable. Starved of oxygen, my body shut down. The fact that I would be unconscious for whatever they would do to me was no comfort at all …



Sunday, 01 Sep 2509, 13:35

The dead were buried, the burned bunkhouses cleared. Most of the holes from the mortars had been filled, though a few remained. Our supplies shipments were still irregular. We’d yet to receive the modules to replace the shelters we’d lost. Everyone doubled up and made the best of it.

The detention block holding the riot instigators still stood. Questioning was still ongoing. The general mood over the issue was ugly. I empathized but I could see the Alliance’s position. Letting the riot slide without repercussions was bad for discipline. I kept my opinions to myself, however, and maintained my neutrality on the matter. I couldn’t afford to take sides any more than the Commandant could afford to be lax. The threat of violence underlay everything inside the wire. For the sake of the civilians, we had to keep it in check.

But today it lay far below the surface. The weather had taken an unexpected turn toward the dry and cool—or cooler for the season, at any rate—and the tempers that normally rose with the summer heat grew calmer. The patient traffic in my infirmary was all the proof I needed. Fewer fights, fewer injuries. Everyone benefitted.

I was in a good mood when I walked back from checking on a child with a broken leg. His growth plate was unaffected by the break and with luck he’d be out of his cast in a few weeks. As I neared the showers, I caught a snatch of song wafting out with the steam. The exuberance of it made me smile. A shipment had managed to make it through and there was finally enough soap to go around. I cut between the shower buildings for the block beyond, thinking on what I could do with the influx of supplies I’d been granted when movement ahead caught my eye.

Looking up, I saw the way out blocked by an enforcer of one of the prison bosses. An illicit deal was about to go down and they needed the alley. I turned to leave and give them their privacy. The way behind me was blocked by another enforcer. I was boxed in.

Shit.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been shaken down for medicine. I never resisted but gave it over. Drugs had currency in the prison underground. I wasn’t unaware of the credit I earned by being accommodating yet I wasn’t so naïve to believe it granted me any kind of immunity. Rival bosses were ruthless in using leverage wherever they found it. I compared the men’s faces against those I knew and recognized their boss before he actually came around the corner. He had a nasty rep and nastier methods. Two more enforcers, larger and meaner than the other two, followed him. All my internal alarms screaming now, I kept my eyes up and my expression respectful. If I were lucky, I could hand over what I had and get clear.

Luck wasn’t with me that day. The flanking goons slammed me face first into the bath house wall. Copper exploded on my tongue. My nose throbbed and ran. I spat blood and tried pushing off the wall but the goons pinned my wrists and shoulders to the wood. I couldn’t move. I heard the scrape of gravel behind me. It was the only warning I got before the boss grabbed my hair and yanked my head back. His breath tickled my ear and slithered down my neck.

“I got a message for your lover boy,” he whispered as he ripped my trousers down.

I thrashed then, knowing full well what was coming. I got a fist in my kidney and I buckled, seeing stars. The boss kicked my knees wide, grabbed my hips, and thrust inside. The pain was excruciating. I shrieked and arched and felt my flesh tear. The boss rammed me again and I broke, sobbing and choking on blood and tears. His whisper hissed past my agony.

“Tell him he’s next.”



“Sir, we have a problem.”

David Russell, Commandant of ADF-037, looked up from the latest iteration of requisition requests and seeing the feed on his desk screen, immediately thumbed the comm.

“On my way.”

The gate feed was grainy, the comms not yet at 100%. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw when he arrived. Half a dozen prisoners waited at the gate with a stretcher. The woman on it, someone he’d known as a childhood friend, as an unlikely ally in this ruinous war, lay barely alive under a bloodied sheet. Every muscle of his body clenching hard, he managed to keep his demeanor impassive, if only just. His finger was steady as he pointed first to the stretcher and then to the prisoners who bore it.

“Medical. Interrogation B.” Three words, but they were enough. Two guards took the stretcher to medical and two more escorted the prisoners to the brig for questioning. They didn’t resist but went willingly. Russell observed them for a beat and turned to the Watch Sergeant standing to the side. “Pick your men. Send them in. Keep it quiet.”

“Yes, sir.”

Orders issued, Russell calmly made it as far as the nearest head, shut the door, and lost everything in his stomach.



Most of the surveillance cameras needed tweaking but the feed from the gate was sharp enough to show the muscle jump in the Commandant’s jaw. The line of the man’s back was eloquent as he stalked off-screen.

Message received.

Good. Eyes narrowing, the watcher mentally crossed that particular task off his list and moved to the next. This one would take some finessing but time was on his side. It always had been.



“Come again?” Parker asked, dead quiet. The answer was no better on retelling. Ass-raped. Beat to shit. Shanked. “I want names. You get caught, I don’t know you. Understand?”

Parker waited until the informant left before turning to the man with him. “Sir, we need to rethink our timetable.”



The guards restrained themselves and in return the prisoners eagerly gave up what they knew. It wasn’t much. She’d been found between the bath houses and immediately taken to her own infirmary. When it was clear she’d been injured beyond their ability to repair, they’d brought her over to the Alliance side of the wire. They admitted other prisoners were already going through the camp looking for anyone who might have more information on what happened.

Russell questioned them long enough to be certain they were telling the truth, thanked them for their cooperation, and had them escorted back to camp. Russell remained in the quiet after they shuffled out, thinking it through. He checked his watch. Three hours. He buzzed medical.

“Status on the patient?” he asked. He knew that there would be only one.

“She’s out of surgery.” A pause. A murmur. Then: “She’s cleared for questions when the sedation wears off.”

“Understood.” He cut the channel and stared at the opposite wall. He’d missed something in his ongoing investigation, something important, and the consequences were lying in medical. The opposition had the advantage. How could he take it from them? Russell quit the brig for the Watch office.



The world returned slowly, the beep and hum of the monitors pulling me through the haze until I blinked awake. It took a moment to focus. Memory returned. My gut lurched. The beeping instantly sped up. Swallowing bile, I took a deep breath and forced myself to calm.

Breathe.

I internally gauged my condition. I was a mass of contradictions. It was hard to think yet my brain was going a mile a minute. I was strapped to my bed yet I felt as if I were floating. I felt too heavy to move but every bone in my body threatened to fall free. I felt no pain yet I could sense it lying just beneath the surface. I would hurt like hell once the meds wore off.

“Ma’am?”

I flinched and yelped as the medic touched me. It was the textbook psychological reaction to being raped and sodomized. I understood it but comprehension did nothing to prevent it. I could only ride out the shakes and suffer the shame of tears. The medic was a woman—a blessing—and she held my hand until I pulled myself together.

“Are you in any pain?” she asked. “Can I get you anything?”

“My chart,” I rasped, hoarse from the drugs and the crying. “Please.”

She hesitated. I was adamant. She got me the chart and water with a straw. I took in both, starved for information and moisture. Zygomatic orbital fracture … perianal and perineal lacerations … penetrating abdominal trauma … Huh. Stabbed. I wasn’t aware of that. Cold clinical facts enabled me to distance myself from the horror. A crutch, perhaps, but I needed it. I analyzed the data. My numbers were good. The surgery went well. My injuries were tricky but the damage wasn’t permanent. I would heal. I looked up from the chart.

“Mirror?” I asked. Again the medic paused. I repeated my request. She got the mirror. I looked hideous but my color was good. I nodded and the medic took the mirror back. “Thank you.”

“You should rest.”

I had no intention of being difficult. I obediently closed my eyes, listening as she checked my IV and monitors and walked away. I remained awake for some time, however, reviewing everything behind my eyelids: my attacker, the assault, everything.

Tell him he’s next.

The message was clear. The reason behind it was not. I tried to make sense of it but the bed swallowed me whole and sleep took me down.



“You can talk,” Russell said, pulling the scrambler from his pocket and putting it on the table. The device blinked a rapid green. “No one’s getting this.”

The man in front of him sported a bloody nose and a swollen lip. Parker, Russell remembered. Independent and none too cooperative when he first arrived, apparently his stint as a prisoner hadn’t changed that aspect of him one bit. Word about the camp said he had a soft spot for the doctor who’d treated him while in custody. Russell hoped that hadn’t changed either.

“You heard what happened.” Russell pulled the pics from the file on the table, turning them so Parker could see them. He saw something hard and ugly bloom behind Parker’s eyes. “You know who did this?”

“Maybe.” Parker looked up, his expression immediately guarded.

“What do you want?”

“Come again?” Parker blinked, looked askance.

“In exchange for the man who did this.”

“Well now …” Parker crossed his arms and stared at the Commandant. Russell stared back. “Do you want the guy who did the deed? Or the guy responsible for makin’ it happen?”

“Both.”

“It’ll cost ya.”

“Name it.”

Parker obliged. It took five minutes. Through it all, Russell studied Parker, weighing what he knew with what he suspected, and considered the consequences. When Parker stopped talking, Russell knew what needed to be done.

“No one can know,” Russell said as he rose, rolling up his sleeves and making a fist.

“Make it look good,” Parker sighed and scraped his chair back.



Several prisoners met with rough treatment that day. The incidents were duly recorded in the logs, despite periodic failures with the surveillance equipment. Russell signed off on the reports before sending them up the line. News of the beatings travelled fast behind the wire. Feelings were running high, both over the attack and the official response to it: Reprisals will not be tolerated. Justice will be carried out by the Alliance. Those who disobey the injunction will face punishment.

Extra guards were posted inside to enforce compliance and to maintain order. The effort required was sometimes vigorous, but order was maintained. Medics from the garrison also pulled duty on the inside, standing in for the doctor the prisoners had lost. Tempers cooled somewhat in recognition of the humanitarian gesture, but the prisoners remained suspicious and sullen. After a week, the situation had toned down from a boil to a simmer. David Russell didn’t believe for a second that it was as stable as it seemed.

“When’s she going back?” Russell’s second-in-command up-nodded toward medical as he stuck his head into his superior’s office.

“Tomorrow.”

That got a whistle.

“So soon?”

“She’s insisting on it.” Russell grimaced in annoyance. “Doctors make the worst patients. They think they know everything. You got something for me, Bill?”

“Yeah,” Bill Simmons stepped all the way in. “I need to go over next week’s rotation with you …”



The man really didn’t have a clue. It never ceased to amaze him how blind people could be. Routine was a security blanket they threw over their heads so they wouldn’t have to see the truth. The truth was betrayal could come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time. Russell was buried in routine, trusting in procedure, in rules and regulations to keep him safe. He would never see it coming.



Sunday, 01 Oct 2519
Mid-bulk freighter, Space Otter
New Melbourne, Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
Somewhat later…

I came to with Allyne Stone gently slapping me awake. I froze, frightened of the male threat of him, before recognition set in. Stone. Captain. Friendly. Firmly planted in the here and now, I reassured him I was fine and got back to work. Even as I did, I couldn’t help wondering if history was repeating itself and if it were, could we alter it?

There was no telling. I only knew we were carried along in the current of events as they unfolded. I could only hope that the past would prove useful to charting our course in the rough waters of our present and perhaps, just perhaps, we’d find a way clear.




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