The Pirate's Torture
(a love story... well, kind of)

tin soldier

He wakes up hungry as a wolf.
There are gunshots ringing through the walls, and he leaps off the floor, instinctively reaching for the Protector .44 in his suit before he’s even properly awake. He’s not wearing his suit of course, so his fingers only meet the cotton wool of his pants, and then his body starts screaming at him to lay back down again.
Everything hurts, from his muscles to his joints. And along with the pain the memories start coming back, rushing through his brain, throbbing on his temples. Then again, his head feels oddly quiet, the usual buzz that keeps him on his toes every hour of every day faded to a calmness he’s not used to. He doesn’t feel groggy, though. Just… present. Alive. That’s creepy. What the stars happened to him?
“You fell asleep,” an irritating voice calls from the other room.
He bursts through the door, feeling exposed without his Hydro suit, and looks warily around for his gun. Could she have taken it? She’s sitting on the floor, her back to him, watching a Projection on the PR. She’s frozen it, but she won’t turn around as she continues to speak in that girlish, annoying tone.
“I don’t think you’ve ever done that before, have you? We both slept, me because of that foul thing you forced down my throat. You slept for more than eleven hours. How do you feel?”
How to answer her? If only he had his gun in his hand, he’d make her realize exactly how he feels.
“I don’t sleep,” he ends up saying stupidly.
“You do now,” she retorts and passes a small hand in front of the screen, which explodes with noise.
That’s where the gunshots were coming from. Felix rubs his temples, feeling faint with hunger. The girl is dressed all in black.
“Hold on a mercury sec,” bursts from his lips as he strides forward, reaching her in two steps. He was right. Dammit.
She’s put on the Clockmaster’s black cloak, his good one, the one he wears only once a year, for the Perennial Celebration. He’s seen in countless times on the Channel. Three days ago, when he transmitted here, it was the first thing he looked for. He remembers the shiver that ran down his spine as he touched it, wishing he could see the Clockmaster with his own eyes, just once, running his hands across the shiny, silky texture like through water. And then he searched every inch of it for a hidden pocket, a compartment, anything that might contain the ‘further instructions’ the old madman had promised him.
He found nothing.
Now the girl just sits there, her small frame dwarfed by the black material, her hair sticking up in all directions, so red it hurts his eyes.
“What in the timers do you think-?” he stops abruptly.
Another gunshot rings in the PR, and the girl’s shoulders droop, shaking. Felix’s breath dies in his throat.
It’s an old Vis she’s watching, one from the Terrestrial Channel. It’s not even news, it happened two years ago, he thinks.
That man, the pirate, what was his name? Christopher Steadfast. It was plastered all over the news for months. He hijacked a fleet of the One World intergalactic shuttles, stock-full of air-warfare, murdered the commander pilot, and changed the coordinates so that they all crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. It was supposed to be a suicide mission, and he was supposed to have drowned along with the First Plane, the only one who had a commander -the rest were manned by stimulations, not humans. But they were waiting for him as soon as the ship’s hull hit the water.
President Kun was beside himself for days, because this was a multi-billion loss for the One World, but he couldn’t do a damn thing about it while the fleet was hurtling through space to the earth’s atmosphere. What he could do was send a team of men to dig through the carcass of the First Plane and bring up Steadfast, more dead than alive. They revived him, and brought him back to the excellent health every citizen of the One Word enjoys.
And then what is known as the Fortnight of Terror began.
It was called so originally because Steadfast was said to be the head of a terrorist gang, but as soon as it became obvious that the pirate wasn’t going to talk no matter what they did to him, his ordeal went viral. Every day the Terrestrial Channel would broadcast a couple new Projections about what was being done to him.
They cast him off on a deserted island, near the oil rigs in the Caribbean, without any pills or one stitch of Hydro to protect his skin from the scorching sun. The whole One World watched as he became emaciated and sick with fever; still he did not surrender. Then they took him to the Box.
Felix hates to admit it, but he didn’t watch most of the Visuals from then on. They did inhuman things to him. Of course what Steadfast had done had been inhuman too, more than inhuman, it had jeopardized the One World’s peace directly, making the Planet vulnerable so that the Colonies would be able to contest Chairman Kun’s position. That would lead to wars of such proportions that the Revision would seem like child’s play.
Everyone knew that.
Everyone knew that Steadfast and his colleagues deserved everything that had happened to him two years ago.
Even so, it was unbearable to watch as they filled his veins with electricity or gave him shots of canine DNA, the effects of which lasted for at least five hours at a time. It was pure torture just watching him. Steadfast didn’t breathe a word about who or what or where his friends were.
By the end of the Fortnight of Terror he was mad. He kept pointing to the sky and yelling meaningless syllables and among them one word. It sounded like a code name. ‘Astra.’ They searched high and low for that thing, or person, or whatever it was -Felix himself was head of several such expeditions. ‘Operations A’ they were called, and they were relentless. Anyone who refused to give them information was immediately charged with high treason. That’s how important ‘Astra’ was. After months and months of combing the Planet, they ended up with nothing but lose ends and no conclusive evidence as to where to go next.
On the floor, the girl is watching, soundless. The Projection has reached the point where the soldiers catch up to Steadfast in the Caribbean island as he’s running on the sand, his skin badly sunburned, his body skeletal. He drops to his knees, his head hanging between his shoulders as though he’s tired of keeping it upright, and a young soldier -practically a kid- approaches him and presses a magnetic rod to his neck, which floods his body with almost 1,000 volts. The pirate’s eyes roll back in his head and his body convulses, kicking up sand and seawater. The soldiers take a step back as though he’s dangerous. Felix turns his eyes away. He doesn’t know what disturbs him more.
Watching Steadfast being fried alive, and knowing he woke up after that only to be fried again and again and again? The fact that in the Projection, he suddenly notices how young Steadfast looks? So young and handsome, what’s left of his muscles bulging like his own, his hair a mop of vibrant color, his eyes dark and mysterious -he can’t be older than thirty five, if that.
Or that the soldier who pushes the magnetic rod into his throat is dark-skinned, shiny-eyed, and bulky?
It’s Karim.
The girl is shaking really badly by now, as though the electricity entered her own body.
She lifts a hand to swipe in front of the PR, but it’s shaking so much the screen can’t obey her. Felix leans forward and freezes it for her, just as Steadfast wakes up and starts screaming. He cuts him off mid-scream, feeling a chill run down his back.
“Are you-?” he starts to ask the girl, but then she turns around to face him and he stops.
Her face is stark white in contrast to her dark curls, her eyes pools of infinite sadness. Water is streaming down her cheeks -tears. He hasn’t seen anyone cry. The mere sight of it freezes him. The girl is staring straight into his eyes, making not one sound, while her swollen lips, wet with tears, are gulping in shuddering breaths.
Why on mars would she watch this thing?
Then she speaks five words, and he knows why. His eyes stray to her right arm, which was bleeding a few hours ago, now clean, only a slight scar indicating where her personal chip was embedded before she tore it out.
He drops his head in his hands, just standing there in front of the weeping girl, the accusations shooting from her eyes, reaching his chest, opening him up like a crimson wound.
“Were you one of them?” is what she said.
“No,” he says in a choked voice. “No, I wasn’t.”
He could very well have been, though. Karim was one of the team. He was the one who…
“I’ll watch it all,” she says, interrupting his thoughts. “I don’t think you want to stay.”
She shrugs. “I haven’t seen it in three months,” she says. Does the stupid girl put on the Fortnight of Terror every month? he wonders. Is that what she means? “I miss him,” she adds, not taking her eyes off his face.
“Oh.” Felix says cleverly. He still doesn’t get it. And then, out of the blue, he does. “Oh,” he breathes, horrified. “Are you… are you Astra?”

match girl

The first time he says her name, it sounds like a curse on his lips. It’s been a curse on everyone’s lips in the two years since her father’s murder.
“Of course I am,” she tells him quietly, wiping her cheeks. “What did you idiot Drones think an ‘Astra’ was? His criminal accessory? His next terrorist device? His secret army of intelligent droids? He was calling for his merking daughter as he was dying!”
She spits the last word out and he flinches.
“They knew what he meant, you know, just as soon as he said it,” she goes on. “They didn’t wait for him to say it twice, before they had me in the Box. Then they fed you all these lies, and had you searching for… what was it? Weeks? Months? Years?”
“Six months,” the soldier tries to say, but his lips have gone dry.
“Well, they kept me in the Box for two years, and finally they brought me up here to kill me. I turned sixteen three days ago. They let me loose and expected me to drop dead from cold and hunger, and when I didn’t they hunted me down like an animal. They finally shot me and killed me, only it wasn’t me.”
“It was an old man, he…” her throat catches. “I don’t think they expected anyone to be walking out in the snow, except for the girl they’d left in the cold to die. Only I didn’t die from the cold. I’ve learnt to survive without pills. Eat, light a fire, put myself to sleep… that sort of thing.”
“Did he have blue eyes like mine?” the soldier asks with urgency and Astra looks at him with surprise.
Does he know the old man? Is this…? Oh no. This can’t be his house!
She looks straight into the soldier’s eyes.
They’re the exact color of the sky at the moment when twilight has just began to fall, and the first star is shining on the horizon. Suddenly she shudders, feeling as though she’s looking into the old man’s eyes.
They’re identical.
The memory floods her as though it happened a moment ago. She feels again the rough texture of the old man’s hand as she held it in hers, freezing with cold; she sees the pool of blood draining from his chest, where he was shot. She sees his eyes focus for a minute on Ursa the bear, and she feels her heart dripping with sadness that he didn’t even have the time to look at the last, magnificent polar bear clearly, the beast that came to her rescue when she was dying of cold, and that she named Ursa after her favorite constellation.
How such an animal has survived all this time is beyond her. The very species has been pretty much extinct for decades, only a few specimens are left, which are in the care of the Intergalactic Research Facilities, studied for their genetic material and abilities.
When the ice cracked beneath her feet, about three days after she watched the old man being buried beneath the thickly falling snow, she thought that was it. She had gulped down icy water along with her panic, and had tried to hold on to the jagged ice for as long as she could, screaming in pain from the cold that pierced her every bone. She slipped under more times than she cares to remember.
The mere memory of the numbing water closing over her head is enough to make her shudder. The minutes she survived in that hole were the worst she’s spent yet. Even counting the times in the Box she would open her eyes to a Drone bending over her, pushing his way between her legs -or watching her father die on the Terrestrial Channel over and over, just so that she could see him one last time.
How had the bear known to run fetch the soldier?
Astra swallows hard.
The blue eyes that are watching her are stormy, and she knows the soldier is reaching his breaking point. She can’t imagine what must be going through his head; there’s a whole world opening up before him, a world that has been carefully kept hidden from him his entire life.
As she was watching her father on the PR, she could feel him rigid with shock behind her, even though she didn’t turn to look at him. I should watch it again, she thinks. He should watch it with me. He should wake up.
It’s time.
He looks smart enough now that he’s missed a pill or two, who knows how he’ll become after he runs around in the cold a little? Maybe there’s some sort of actual human behind this handsomely crafted façade.
‘Did he have blue eyes like mine?’
“Not quite as vacant and stupid as yours,” she replies, “but yes, he did. I held his hand as he was dying.” 

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