BY STUART HULL
“There’s no redemption for you. Not after what you have done.”
Rilla smiled. Her face was littered with bruises and cuts, and terrible pain wracked her every movement. Fear probed at her heart; she resisted it as best she could, but it was there, prowling around the darkest of her thoughts.
“On that point, Colonel, we both agree,” she replied, looking over from across the table. Her smile remained, even as her cheeks shook with an involuntary spasm.
Rilla had been party to enough interrogations to know that mocking one’s interrogator was hardly wise. However, she and wisdom had parted company long ago, and there was no turning back now.
This was it, the end of the line.
There was only one thing left to do.
She just needed one question to be answered. The hope of that answer was her whole existence now, and in this certain truth, Rilla felt a flutter of joy beat across her aching heart. Life had never been simple. But it was now, and even in her broken, ruined form, Rilla found comfort in that.
“You’re a traitor, Sergeant,” Colonel Faust continued. He leaned forward, the sickly green light of the interrogation room casting a shadow across his cheek.
“You are a murderer, the foulest of murderers. There can be no greater treachery than gunning down your own troops.”
Rilla’s jaw clenched, sending great stabs of pain up across her face.
Yet her smile remained. She had to smile, she must smile. There was nothing left to do, no other tactic to employ. The interrogators had worked her for nine days. Nine days of little sleep, almost no food, and precious little water. Throughout years of soldiering, Rilla had been repeatedly trained in a number of counter-interrogation techniques. She could handle the beatings, the shock cables, the flame barbs. Even the psycho-invasive tortures held little fear for her.
They could fill her head with nightmares all day long – she had been the bringer of nightmares too long to fear that.
However, she was now so tired, so very tired. She could not hold out for much longer. She’d seen dozens break under interrogation, and she knew the signs. There was only one more thing that she needed, one answer.
“Your treachery has cost you everything,” snarled Colonel Faust, his arms tensing under the folds of his pristine Trellian Guard uniform. “But you know as well as I, Sergeant, that I will not hesitate to fashion yet more visions to be conjured and torn from your mind.”
At this Rilla started to laugh. She couldn’t help herself. Everything was just so awful that her body could offer no other response. The tips of her incisors came to rest over the manic smirk of her lips. They had attempted some psycho invasive measures yesterday, to little effect. Low-level psychics had probed her mind for hours, twisting memories, creating the thoughts of new loved ones to be lost. None of this cognitive manipulation was permanent, but it was far from pleasant.
Rilla knew that a few more weeks of this and she would go mad; she had seen it happen before. This was not something that concerned her any more. There was nothing left to fear.
“Do I amuse you, Sergeant?” snapped Faust.
The bloodied smirk remained.
“More than you know, Sir,” Rilla answered.
A figure stepped forward from behind the colonel, the clear outline of an electro shock baton sparking in his hand.
Colonel Faust, not looking up, nodded.
Rilla closed her eyes and lowered her head, eager to protect her jaw. The blows came in hard and fast, striking her twice across the cheekbone.
“That’s enough, Mallus.” The guard stepped to one side, his bare arms taut with knotted muscles, eager to land another blow.
Rilla opened her eyes and breathed.
“Nice tattoo,” she muttered, looking over at the regimental insignia of the Hammers of Draken that was marked in ink just above Mallus’ wrist. “Ah, the hammers. You boys always were heavy hitters. Died hard too, if I remember rightly.”
The baton shifted eagerly in the guard’s hands. “You faced us in the war?” the brute asked. Rilla rolled her head casually to one side.
“Oh yeah, found a bunch of you on the Territh landings. That was a busy day.”
“I doubt that a whelp like you could have faced us and lived,” Mallus spat.
“Lived? Oh, we did more than live. Our drop ships landed right on top of you,” Rilla sighed, blowing out her cheeks. “What a mess that was, but that’s incendiary grenades for you. Until that day, I genuinely didn’t know that soldiers could squeal like that.”
Suddenly the shock baton was raised high in the air, about to descend upon Rilla.
Mallus looked down at Faust’s raised hand, grunted, and slowly lowered his arm.
“Enough of this! The war is over, it has been for years. We are unified now, we are whole. For the first time in over a century we have peace. A peace only broken by traitorous scum like you,” said Faust, pointing a finger at Rilla.
“I guess that depends upon how you define peace.”
Faust scowled. “Peace, true peace, will be when every one of the unsanctioned psychics causing havoc across the galaxy is arrested and interned.”
“Interned,” Rilla mused, “yes, sounds like peace to me.”
“I am surprised to find you so flippant on the matter,” said Faust, leaning back into his chair, hands clasped together. “The war in which you fought, in which so many of your people died, was caused by rogue psychics.”
Rilla’s expression hardened. “That’s not how I remember it.”
“Whether you remember it that way or not is irrelevant. The nations are one now. The Terethine, the Arjaxi, the Culina and …” the Colonel paused, observing Rilla’s own regimental tattoo which sat upon her shoulder. “Even the Elysians are all one. Joined together for one great purpose, but…” Faust’s fist suddenly slammed into the table. “Dissent lingers! Treachery persists!”
Rilla remained unmoved. She thought about Elysia, she thought about her old regiment, her home. The sanctioned interrogator psychics had tried to twist her memory of those treasured things. They had layered them with deceits and warped them with darkness, but Rilla still remembered the truth, and could hold onto that for now.
“You signed up to join the Trellian Guard like so many other veterans of the war did,” said Faust. “You hunted down remnants of the resistance: warbands, political agitators, rogue psychics. In return, we gave you a new uniform, unsullied by the failures of the past and more importantly, we gave you purpose. You betrayed all that when you aided in the prisoner’s escape and killed some of your own troops in the process.”
He held her gaze for a moment. “Where is psychic 11782?”
“Her name is Mia.”
Faust rolled his eyes. “I’ve read her file. She is an unsanctioned rogue psychic, stateless and thereby, nameless.”
“She has a name. It’s Mia.”
Now Faust offered his own cruel grin. “It’s intriguing that you take such an interest in her illegal name. You never took much interest in their names before. The other prisoners, I mean, the ones that you captured and delivered here.”
Rilla’s breathing slowed, her hands clenching around her bindings.
Faust continued. “What was different about 11782?”
Rilla pursed her lips shut. Faust looked at Mallus, who laid down a blow which fractured Rilla’s nose. She had lowered her face again at the last moment in order to protect her jaw. It was not yet time.
The interrogator drummed his fingers across the table’s metallic surface. “It can’t be because she was a civilian – that never bothered you before. Neither could it be because you knew what her fate would be. A woman of your experience knows what we do to interned criminals. What we must do. It’s certainly not that you’re blood-shy.” Faust held up a small, translucent holo-slate which appeared to display Rilla’s personal service file.
“Rarely has a story flowed with so much blood, as has the story of your career, Sergeant.”
It was then that Rilla felt her smile falter. Dark figures and tortured faces surfaced from the depths of her mind. However, these were not planted by interrogator psychics; these were real memories. Here was darkness, real darkness, and it was the only thing in the room that brought Rilla any true fear.
She had killed thousands of people, Rilla had no doubt about this. Not directly, of course, but serving as a drop ship commando involved more than its fair share of blood. She had laid bombs, destroyed bridges, sabotaged starships, and destabilized the hierarchy of entire planets. You couldn’t do work like that without accepting that the corpses did not stop falling until long after you were back home. She had come to accept that. It was war, and that was the nature of the beast.
It was the work of recent years, after the war had ended, that really troubled her. It was certainly less dramatic. Heinous or not, any soldier had to admit that war had a certain drama about it, a dreadful, macabre poetry. This was not so with her work in the Trellian Guard. The last four years had been a patchwork of back-alley assassinations and kidnappings. The officers referred to these incidents as arrests, but deep down in her heart, Rilla had never been comfortable with this description.
A single tear rolled slowly down her cheek.
Even in the beginning, she had heard of the internment centres to which captured rogue psychics were sentenced. This had not stopped her carrying on with her job. Soldiers were always prone to gossip, and the galaxy had changed so much in the past few years that it was almost impossible to discern the lies from the truth. At least, that was what Rilla had told herself. But the rumors had continued, files had been leaked, and the “arrests” had become more extensive. Very soon, Rilla and her team had been ordered to deliver a captive straight to one of the centres, and she had never recovered from that first and only visit. Rilla had witnessed battlefields littered with the bodies of the slain. She had watched starships explode, and seen fusion bombs devastate an entire city. However, these were not the images that kept her up at night. She still could not believe how silent that internment centre had been. So much pain, and so much silence.
She still remembered opening up case file 11782. It did not come with a name, just a picture, half a dozen incident reports, and an approximate location. Rilla had decided long before she entered her transport shuttle, that she would never go back to one of those centres. She was determined to set Mia free before she ever knew her name.
Tears now rolled freely across her face.
“There it is,” Faust hissed, with a note of triumph in his voice. His eyes wandered down to her regimental tattoo, which depicted a small sword submerged beneath two waves resting above a thin scrawl of native Elysian script. “What was the name of your old unit again?” he asked.
“The Argenti Militant,” she replied, her words laced with tears.
“What does that say there?” he asked, pointing at the tattoo.
Suddenly her eyes ceased to water, and her lips stopped their trembling. The memory of the eager cries of a thousand voices across a hundred parade grounds gave strength to Rilla’s words as she recalled the motto of her old regiment.
“Resist and bite.”
“How suitably barbaric,” Faust scoffed, glancing over at Mallus.
“We were soldiers,” spoke Rilla with such slow, deliberate rage that the Colonel’s eyes widened with surprise. “Real soldiers.”
The officer leaned forward. “Well, Rilla, you’re certainly no soldier now. I have already lost a whole team of operatives because of you, and many more will die because of your pet psychic. Four of our installations in the past week have been damaged by psy-bombs.”
Rilla was not surprised to hear this. Psy-bombs were a potent tool in the right hands, capable of levelling buildings if imbued with enough power. She had used several during the war. All that was required was an object of appropriate size and a dedicated psychic who was willing to pour a portion of their power into it. Once the psychic had filled the object with some element of their power, all one needed to do was to break the object in some way, and destruction would soon follow. In the past, she had used this technique to destroy an armoured car with a pair of dice, and again to destabilize a warship’s reactor core with a rather large book about rural conservation methodology. Such bombs were highly unstable and extremely dangerous to the wielder, but Rilla had learned long ago that when her back was against the wall, extreme measures were necessary. No matter the cost.
Faust massaged the sides of his temple. “My patience is wearing thin, and I know that Mallus here would like nothing more than to pummel what little remains of your traitorous brain into the nearest wall. So I am going to ask again, where is psychic 17782?”
“I have no idea where Mia is.”
“We are going to find her. You must realise this?”
Rilla shrugged. “Maybe she’ll find you first.” Her jaw ached with every word, but she needed to keep the conversation going, no matter the pain. It would not be long now.
Faust tapped the holo-slate and a series of familiar faces ran across the small screen.
“You must have had a plan. I doubt that you would have gunned down your entire team without one.”
He leaned forward. “How did that feel, by the way? The security vids show that you were facing them when you did it. Did they look betrayed to you?”
Rilla met his gaze. “You were the one that recruited them,” she answered accusingly. “You immersed them in a world of shadows and death. That’s what killed them, Colonel.” She didn’t believe these words, not for a second. But they were all she had, and her mission here was nearly over.
It had been hard. This was the only word that she had for it. To call her terrible deed anything else would have meant thinking about it more, and Rilla could not bring herself to do that. She knew that no other member of the team would have aided her in securing Mia’s freedom. They were either too devoted to the cause, or were simply supporting too many dependents to throw their lives away.
She had planned it carefully. Leading her team with their prisoner to the ship’s smallest transport bay, she had discreetly handed Mia an access key to the nearest shuttle. Her kinetic ion pistol had been set to fire anti-armour rounds; she wanted it to be over quickly. She had made sure that the others were armed, even as she pushed Mia through into the shuttle bay, sealing the bulkhead door between the young prisoner and her team. Rilla knew that she was a faster shot than any of them, and even with the memory of the internment centre burned into her mind, she could not bring herself to kill her fellow operatives whilst they were unarmed. Each of them had drawn their weapons as she had explained her plan, in readiness to her sudden and traitorous outburst. All of them, that was, except for Corporal Varren. He was a veteran of the last war, and the only one of the team that Rilla had come to trust. However, despite this, she knew what his answer would have been if she had invited him to join her conspiracy. Even as she shot every other member of the team, Varren had remained calm and steady, not once reaching for the pistol at his hip. He had simply looked at her, breathed deeply, and lowered his head. No matter what happened in the next few minutes, this was not a memory that Rilla could bear to carry much longer. Nothing the interrogator psychics could conjure would wrack her brain as much as the memory of that moment.
“You are a murderer,” said Faust, leaning his head to one side. “With the evidence that we have I could have you executed here and now, and no one would so much as blink. But I’m not going to do that.” The Colonel’s eyes narrowed and his face became contorted in an expression of pure malice. “I am going to have you beaten again, and again, and again. The only life that you will know between beatings will be filled with the agony of psychic-invasive tortures, the like of which you have never dared dream. Your mind will walk across a crumbling precipice of insanity, as your body is torn apart piece by piece. This is your fate, unless you give me the transport location of rogue psychic 11782.”
Rilla nodded slowly in response.
“And what happens if I do give you her location?”
Faust offered no verbal reply. He simply pulled a sidearm from his belt and placed his own pistol on the table.
“I see,” muttered Rilla. She had faced death many times, but now, as she sat in the room in which she was certain she was going to die, Rilla felt afraid. Her heart wavered at the thought of drawing her last breath, and her mind swam amidst a sea of uncertainty, a fear of the void beyond. Now that death was about to consume her, she discovered that she had doubts. Her right hand trembled, her fingers shaking uncontrollably.
Rilla heard the hulking form of Mallus snigger with amusement, as fear took a visible hold upon her.
Then she felt it.
A warm glow of psychic energy returned, issuing a gentle wave of heat from the back of her mouth. The hollow tooth against which Rilla lightly pressed her tongue was still there, despite the extreme violence of recent days. It reminded her of Mia, of the young girl’s smile, and her hope for the future.
Suddenly Rilla’s hand ceased to shake, and her resolve strengthened. The doubts dissipated from her mind and courage returned to her. She was the one in control here. She had a mission to complete, and she desired only one simple answer.
She smiled. “I’ve been tortured before, Colonel. Death is not such a stranger to me that I fear its company. You can threaten me with pain and madness, and I can die happy knowing that I took Mia’s hiding spot to the grave.”
Faust suddenly rose to his feet, kicking back his chair.
“That is where you are wrong!” he exclaimed with a hint of pride. His left hand now held a device with which Rilla was more than familiar.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” he asked.
“Of course. It’s a bio-track scanner.”
The officer cradled the small machine in both hands as if it were a newly discovered relic of unparalleled worth.
“It is indeed. The tracking nodes were injected into 17782’s bloodstream at the moment of her arrest by one of your fallen colleagues.”
Rilla’s heart skipped a beat. This was it. The question hung in her mind like the pin of a grenade against her teeth. All she needed to do was bite.
“The scanner is programmed to track her exact coordinates?”
Faust let out a long satisfied sigh. “Yes. We’re not taking any more chances with rogue psychics. The technology is expensive, but necessary. This one scanner is uniquely linked to 11782’s DNA. Once the nodes, which even now swim in her blood, develop and mature, we shall be able to track her precise location. This will take some weeks, however. We would prefer to know where she is now. That’s why you’re here.”
Rilla’s heart almost stopped with the weight of anticipation. She moved her tongue slowly across her mouth, shifting the loose and hollow tooth which radiated the psychic energy across her body. The young Mia had been surprised when Rilla had first removed the old replacement tooth from within her own mouth. She had strongly objected to Rilla’s plan, and even cried. Rilla had been touched by this. It had been a long time since anyone had elicited such concern for her. In the end, however, Mia had agreed; Rilla had given her little choice. The girl had poured her power into the tooth, and the long walk to the transport shuttle had begun.
“That is the only scanner capable of tracking her?” asked Rilla.
“It is,” scoffed Faust, looking down at the cables which bound Rilla to her chair. “And there’s nothing that you can do about it. We will find her, with you, or without you.”
There it was. Her mission was all but complete.
Rilla shifted the psychically-charged tooth between two of her molars.
Faust placed the scanner down upon the table. “So I am going to ask you again. Where is psychic 11782?”
Rilla stared the Colonel dead in the eye. She thought of her home. She thought of Elysia. She thought of her regiment.
“Mia? She’s out there somewhere, free, and far beyond your grasp.”
She slammed her teeth together, as a final thought ran through her mind.
Resist and Bite.