Sunday, September 25, 2016

Weeks 23 through 30 - Tork

Michael Salsbury
Author's Note: For reasons I can't completely explain, this story has taken me seven weeks to brainstorm and write. Hopefully it's worth the wait. Thank you for reading.

Tork scratched at the scar on his head. He hated the Sylkarans for putting an implant in his brain, hated them for invading his planet, hated them for trying to send him to a prison planet to die. He wanted to crush them all, and watch them die.

The pain came again. He hated the Sylkarans more. The implant monitored his thoughts. When he imagined hurting someone, it filled his body with pain until the thought vanished. If he actually tried to hurt someone, the pain became so great that Tork lost consciousness.

The Sylkarans had taken everything from him. They took his world. They kept him from his family and friends. The stupid implant even took away Tork's livelihood. He'd never be able to fight in MuTai ring again. The implant saw to it. Just remembering his old bouts caused him headaches. 

He tried to shift his thoughts away from the Sylkarans. When he finally did, the pain left him. He even felt a little jolt of euphoria when he stopped thinking about them. Did the implant do that too? Did it make him feel better when he stopped wanting to kill them? Maybe. That was another reason to hate the bastard Sylkarans.

Ethan Crosby's voice came from the ship-wide intercom. "We're a few minutes out from Rygell-3. Everyone get to the bridge. I want all hands on deck when we come out of FTL. I don't know what we'll find in orbit over the planet."

Tork had been to Rygell-3 when he didn't have the implant, when he was still himself, still a champion in the MuTai ring. He had to tell Crosby about this place. It is a violent world. Once, that prospect would have thrilled him. Now it left him cold, scared. He cursed the Sylkarans again. Their implant was turning him into a coward who didn't fight back. They had robbed him of his very identity. They would pay.

The pain again. Best to change thoughts, Tork decided. He got up off his cot and made his way to the bridge. The others were already there.

"Glad you could join us, Tork," Mills said, turning back to his console.

Tork didn't care much for Mills. Mills saw himself as superior to everyone else. In the MuTai ring, Tork would have taken him out with a single hit. The room seemed to darken a bit, and the pain came rushing back. Tork took his thoughts off Mills and turned them toward Crosby. He needed to warn his shipmates.


"Yes, Tork?"

"I've been to Rigell-3 before. It's a dangerous place. Not much law enforcement. Lots of fighting in the streets. Thieves in the alleys. A very dangerous place. Be careful."

"Noted. Do you mind being our guide when we get there?"

Tork thought about this. The prospect worried him. "I'm not sure." He tapped his head. "This thing, in my head, won't let me fight. Won't let me hurt anyone. On Rigell-3, I'm a target, a risk. I might slow you down or get you killed."

"Maybe, but we could use your help. We've scrounged up some things to trade in the cargo hold. If it's as dangerous as you say, we'll need your help getting the stuff to market. If nothing else, it'll mean we can free up our hands for guns."

Tork nodded. "As long as I don't go alone." Just saying those words made Tork's stomach feel terrible. He felt like such a weakling. 

CORA came out of FTL between Rigell-3 and its nearest moon. Monroe put the ship into a standard orbit while they requested landing coordinates from the spaceport.

"Set down on pad 182," the control center told her. Monroe called up the coordinates and started CORA down toward the planet.

Brell took a sip from a glass of water. A pocket of turbulence in the atmosphere shook the ship. Brell lost his grip on the glass and it splashed onto Mills' pants.

Mills bared his teeth. "You idiot! I should kill you for that."

Brell raised an eyebrow. "It's just water. Sorry."

"Not good enough," Mills said. "You clumsy fool."

"Now look here, Mills. It was an accident. I said I was sorry."

Mills lunged at Brell, grabbing him by the throat. Brell began to gasp for air.

Crosby and Tork rushed over to them, struggling to separate them. Tork held Mills, while Crosby pull Brell back.

"You've done it now, Mills. You'd better not sleep tonight. I'll cut your throat."

"Just try it," Mills said, struggling in vain to get free of Tork's grip.

"What's gotten into you two?" Crosby asked, tightening his grip on Brell. "I know you aren't best friends, but is a spilled drink really worth death threats?"

The expression on Mills' face softened. He looked at Crosby. "No."

"And you, Brell. I've never seen you threaten anyone before today. What's gotten into you?"

"It's just... he always treats me like an inferior."

Mills snuffed. "Because you are."

Brell broke loose from Crosby and kicked the Mills in the stomach. Crosby grabbed Brell's collar and threw him to the ground. 

"Get this under control or I'm going to kick you both off the ship when we land."

Mills jammed an elbow into Tork's gut. Tork loosened his grip slightly, which was all Mills needed to free himself and run toward Brell.

Crosby's martial arts training kicked in. He leapt off of Brell and swept Mills' legs from underneath him. He fell to the deck, the wind knocked out of him. Another hit knocked Mills unconscious.

Crosby looked at Tork, "Take Mills to the medbay. Strap him down. I'll be right behind you with--" He looked around for Brell, but Brell was gone. "Damn! Don't let Brell near Mills once you have him strapped down."

Tork nodded, picking up the unconscious Mills and carrying him toward medbay.

"Will you be OK to get us down, Monroe?"

"Yeah. Piece of cake."

Crosby left to find Brell. He suspected the thief was on his way to the armory, so he ran in that direction himself.

* * * 

Tork strapped Mills into the rejuvenation cell in the ship's medbay. The display above Mills' head showed the man's vital signs. Tork had been in enough hospitals to have some idea what normal readings looked like. Mills' readings seemed normal. Then again, he was a human, and Tork wasn't completely sure what normal human readings looked like. Maybe the computer would know.

"CORA," Tork said.

"Yes, Tork."

"What's wrong with Mills? He tried to kill Brell."

"Scanning... the medical computer shows no obvious physiological defects or infections, but it has no human or Sylkaran reference data. There may be toxins or pathogens at work it cannot identify."

"You're saying he's healthy?"

"I am stating only that there is no observable source of illness. The computer cannot diagnose psychological maladies and cannot rule out poisoning."

"You're saying he might be going crazy?"

"Negative. I am saying only that the possibility cannot be ruled out."

Mills opened his eyes, then began struggling at the straps. "Cut me loose, Tork, or I swear I'll kill you."

Tork shook his head. "Maybe you have something there, CORA."

"There's nothing wrong with me. It's that meddling moron, Brell. I should have killed him when we first came aboard."

Tork pointed at Mills. "That's exactly why Crosby wants you restrained."

Mills growled and continued to struggle with his restraints.  The struggling was in vain. Tork had done a good job strapping in him and the medical computer made sure Mills couldn't get up.

Tork heard a noise behind him. He turned toward the sound, to find Brell charging into the room with a blaster in his hand. Tork grabbed Brell and wrestled the blaster from his hand, throwing it across the room. The implant started to cause him pain, so Tork shifted his thoughts from knocking Brell out to merely restraining him, and keeping him away from Mills. The pain vanished, and Tork felt almost happy.

Crosby entered the room, carrying a stunner. "Let him go." Tork pushed Brell away. Crosby hit Brell with the stunner, causing Brell to collapsed onto the deck. Together, Mills and Crosby dragged their unconscious crewmate to the rejuvenation cell furthest from Mills. 

Crosby's head throbbed with pain. His stomach felt queasy. He sat down in one of the chairs in the room. Tork looked at him. "You OK, Crosby?"

"I don't know, Tork. I feel sick, really sick. I need you to get Brell into the rejuvenation cell. First, though, you've got to remove his clothes and search his body for tools."

Tork raised an eyebrow.

"I mean it. Brell is a master thief. Guys like him have lockpicks and knives hidden all over themselves in case they're arrested or captured. If we don't get them off him now, he'll wake up and get himself out of the straps. Then he'll go after Mills again."

Mills scowled at them.  "While I'm conveniently strapped down in this bed. Nice." 

Crosby nodded. "Exactly. I don't want either of these guys getting up until we figure out what's wrong with them."

"Nothing's the matter with me. It's Brell. He's incompetent and clumsy."

Crosby's brow furrowed. "Just the other day, you told me you'd never seen such a skilled thief. Said you could learn a few things from him. What's different today?"

"That was... never mind. The man's an idiot, and a Sylkaran idiot at that. We should space him."

"No one is throwing anyone out an airlock on my ship. Is that clear?"

Mills flashed a chilling smile. "Who said it's your ship? CORA prefers me to the rest of you."

Crosby ignored MIlls, and looked at Tork. "What did the medicomp say about Mills?"

"It says there's nothing wrong with him, except maybe he's gone nuts."

"I'm fine. Just a little headache is all," Mills said, still trying to free himself from the straps.

Tork began searching Brell. It didn't take Tork long to find hidden devices on the thief. Brell had a hidden lockpick in his collar, another in his waistband, another in the seam of his pants, a knife in the cuff of his shirt, and some other gadgets Tork couldn't identify.

Crosby smiled. "Gotta hand it to Brell. It'd be hard to hold him prisoner. I wonder how the Sylkarans ever caught him?"

"I know," Mills told him. "The idiot forgot to check for boobytraps. Got gassed. They nabbed him while he was passed out. Served him right. Shame it wasn't poison gas."

"You don't mean that, Mills."

"Don't I?"

"No, you don't." Crosby stood up. He felt a little light-headed. "I'm going to go find some clothes for Brell. Strap him down until I get back... and cover him with something."


Crosby found an old uniform from CORA's original crew in one of the unoccupied quarters. He carried it back to the medbay so that Tork could dress Brell in it.

The ship thumped and shook slightly. Crosby recognized this as the ship setting down on its landing pad. He was glad that they landed safely, but still concerned that Mills and Brell seemed to want to kill each other. He couldn't understand it. He knew Brell admired Mills for his ability to crack open computer security systems, and that Mills wished he had Brell's skill with locks and alarms. He often found them sitting and talking with each other. It didn't make sense that they suddenly wanted to kill each other.  There was a something of a rivalry between them, sure, but it wasn't violent. 

As he handed Tork the uniform, Crosby felt the room sway a bit. "Did Monroe land us on a boat or something?"

Tork looked at him as though he'd grown a second head. "What do you mean?"

"It's just that the room feels... so..."

Crosby fell unconscious to the deck. Tork rushed over to him, picked him up, and placed him in the nearest rejuvenation cell. "CORA, what's wrong with Crosby?"

"Unknown. The medical computer cannot identify any problem with Crosby, but lacks sufficient data to make a proper diagnosis. It suggests that the most likely diagnosis is a poison of some kind."

"How can we find out?"

"I will commence a scan of the ship's air, water, and food supply for any unexpected substances. The scan will take approximately thirty minutes."

"Do it."

Tork strapped Crosby down in the rejuvenation cell, the returned to Brell. Brell was beginning to stir and twitch a bit. He would be awake soon. Tork hurried to get Brell dressed, then strapped him into the cell. 

"Typical..." Monroe entered the medbay. "I'm left alone to land the ship, and you men are all playing hypochondriacs down here."

"They all appear to be ill. As a precaution, I've strapped them into the rejuvenation cells."

Monroe smiled. "So you have..." She stepped over to Crosby's cell.

"The computer can't find anything wrong, but it doesn't have much data on human anatomy."

"Well, then," Monroe said, smiling. "Maybe we need to teach it a little human anatomy. I'll start with Crosby."  She began unbuckling Crosby's pants. "I've been dreaming of getting him horizontal since we first met."

"I've never seen you behave this way, Arden. What's going on?"

She sighed. "I'm just a little lonely, and he looks so delicious lying here helpless. I can't wait to--"

Monroe began to convulse, then doubled over. As Tork reached her side, the threw up onto the deck. Tork could see the worry in her eyes when she looked up at him. He took her arm and walked her to one of the remaining rejuvenation cells. She didn't argue as he helped her lie down on its bed. When she passed out a moment later, he decided it would be best to strap her down as well. She seemed unable to control her impulses any better than Mills and Brell had.

"CORA," Tork said, "is there any change in their condition? Are they getting better or worse?"

"The medical computer indicates that their vital signs remain consistent. Brainwave activity is erratic, but this is not uncommon among species which sleep."

"In other worse, they're dreaming."

"I am not familiar with that word, but if it is similar to imagining, then yes."

"Yes. A dream is an imagined incident experienced during sleep."



Over the next several hours, Tork found himself tending to his crewmates. He had no real experience with nursing. He had always operated more on the "supply" side of the medical industry, injuring his opponents and sending them to the hospital. Nevertheless, he had seen how doctors and nurses behaved toward their patients and tried to treat his crewmates the same way.

Occasionally, the thought would cross Tork's mind that killing his crewmates in their weakened states would be relatively easy, and he could leave with CORA. From what the others had told him, CORA was fast, well armored, and powerful. With it, he might be able to free his family from the Sylkarans and make a life elsewhere. There was the pain again, bad this time. Mustn't think of killing the others. Must think of getting them healthy. The pain went away again.

Crosby coughed. Tork walked to his bed.

"Tork, how is everyone?"

"They're the same. And you?"

"I feel awful. I feel like I have the worst flu of my life. My head hurts. My muscles and joints ache. My stomach feels like I ate something rancid. I keep having these crazy dreams. I've never felt like this. I feel like I'm going to die."

"Me too," Brell said. 

"What does the medical computer think is wrong with us?"

"It doesn't know. It doesn't have enough medical information on humans. It thinks we may have been poisoned or exposed to a disease."

"That means we have a problem."  Crosby convulsed a bit, then stopped. "The only way we could have been poisoned is the ship's food and water. That means we shouldn't trust it. We need a doctor, too. We need you to find us safe food, water, and medical help."

"I can't leave the ship alone."

"You have to. I am too shaky. I doubt I can stand. From what you told me earlier, the others still seem to be acting strangely. We can't risk them getting off the ship and losing control. I know I'm asking a lot of you, but we could be dying here. I don't know."

Tork nodded. The thought of letting his crewmates die brought the pain back. The more he tried to resist the idea of leaving the ship to get them help, the worse the pain got. He realized that the implant was giving him no choice, and he hated the Sylkarans some more.


Tork strapped a sidearm to his belt, opened the outer door, and picked up the crate. Once he was through the door, he set the crate down, turned, and entered a lock code into the panel by the door. The door slammed shut and the loud thud of the locking mechanism told him his crewmates were as safe as they could be inside it.

As he made his way to the market in the center of the city, Tork kept an eye out for anyone who seemed to be too interested in him or the merchandise he was carrying. Muggings were common on this planet, and Tork knew that the best he could do would be to threaten would-be robbers with the sidearm at his waist. Even the thought of firing it at someone as a warning gave him a headache. He wondered if the people who created this implant realized how vulnerable it made the person who had been saddled with it. Best not to dwell on it, he decided. That would just make him want to hurt them, and that would mean more pain from the implant.

He couldn't explain why, but he suddenly felt a little better. Maybe it was just that he'd almost reached the market and hadn't been attacked. He wasn't sure. Either way, he couldn't suppress a smile.

The market was a haphazard arrangement of hastily constructed stalls and tables, with seemingly random bits or merchandise on them. One table was covered with fresh fruits, many of which Tork didn't recognize. Another seemed to be selling engine parts and dried meat... or something that looked like dried meat. Others sold clothing, medicines, weapons, and even livestock.

When he found a table with what appeared to be Sylkaran emergency rations, Tork stopped and set down the crate he carried. This would be the closest thing to a familiar, safe meal any of them had eaten since escaping from the Sylkaran prison ship. 

"How much will you give me for what's in the box?" Tork pointed at the crate.

The shopkeeper rubbed her chin, looked at Tork, then at the crate. She bent down and rummaged through the contents of the crate, occasionally taking a closer look at an item. Just as Tork's patience began to fade, she stood up and looked at him. "Thirty meals, you pick."

Tork shook his head. "The Geldon Converter in that box is worth at least twenty. Fifty meals.  You pick half."

"Too much. Too much. No one's come through here needing a converter for weeks. Forty meals. I pick ten."


The two of them picked a selection of the meals and packed them into a large cloth bag. Tork tossed the bag over his shoulder.

"Is there a medic in this city?"

"For your kind? I don't know."

"No, for humans and Sylkarans. Got some sick on my ship."

"There's a clinic two blocks northeast. Take them there."

Tork shook his head. "Too sick for that."

"I don't know. Don't think the doctors at the clinic do house calls."

"OK. Thanks."

The bag of meals weighed more than the crate Tork carried to the market. It was too heavy to carry very far, so he decided to haul it back to the ship. He would feed the others, then see if he could find a doctor to help them.


Tork prepared a few of the rations he had purchased in the ship's galley, then took them to the medbay. 

He held a fork full of Sylkaran steak out to Crosby.

Crosby shook his head. "My stomach's too upset, Tork. I can't eat anything."

"I can," Monroe said. "Bring it here. Smells great."

Tork fed Monroe until she'd had enough. By then, Mills was complaining that it was his turn to eat something. As he fed Mills, Brell woke up and sniffed at the air. Tork knew he would need to feed them all. If his MuTai opponents saw him doing this, they'd be laughing at him. They weren't here, and Tork decided not to let it bother him.

Crosby was sweating and shaking. Tork put a blanket over him and wiped his brow. "Are you sure you don't want something to eat, Ethan?"

"No." Crosby's eyes rolled back into his head and he fell asleep.

"Tork," Mills said, "Let me up. I feel fine."

"Me too," Brell added, wriggling against the straps.

"Yeah," Monroe said. "I'm feeling OK again, too."

"Let's wait and see. If you keep this meal down, and the next one, I'll unstrap you. I need to see if I can find a doctor for Crosby. He looks worse."

Monroe turned her face toward Crosby's rejuvenation cell. "You're right. He looks terrible."

Tork went to the hold to get another crate of merchandise, to bargain with a medic.


Tork locked the ship, picked up the crate, and started toward the city. Behind him, he saw a ship land on a nearby pad. Three humanoids got out of it and walked in the same direction he was going. Something about the way they looked at him made Tork nervous. He quickened his pace. He could tell from their footfalls behind him that they had done the same. They were getting closer.

He turned to look at them. They drew their blasters. Tork dropped the crate and turned to face them, reaching for his sidearm. The tallest one fired at the ground by his feet.

"Leave it holstered."

Tork did as he was told. He couldn't have shot them anyway. 

"Wait," the tall one said. "I know this guy. MuTai champion. Right?"

Tork nodded.

"I lost a fortune when you clobbered Kelsey Grant on Feldon 7."  

Tork could see the anger rising in the man. He needed to do something before this got out of control, before someone started a fight Tork couldn't finish.

"If it helps, I'm not fighting anymore. You won't lose money because of me, ever again."

"No. You owe me. I figure I lost five hundred Alliance credits on you."

"I've got nothing," Tork said, pulling out his empty pockets. "You can have what's in the crate."

The man looked inside the crate, then looked up at Tork. "Take us aboard that ship you got out of. We'll take what we want from there. Not this trash."

"The rest of the crew might have something to say about that," Tork hoped they didn't detect his bluff.

"Are we taking the stuff or not? I'd like to get something to eat."

"Yeah, but first--" The man shot Tork in the knee. He fell to the ground. In an instant, the others were there, pounding on Tork. All he could do was to try to block their attempts to kick the areas he was most vulnerable. He was almost relieved when one of them knocked him unconscious.


Tork felt himself starting to wake up. He seemed to be unable to move, restrained by something. He opened his eyes, and immediately regretted it. The bright lights hurt them, but they eventually adjusted. He was aware of voices, in the distance. He strained to make them out.

"This is the last batch I'm making for you," a woman's voice said. "I'm finished."

"You're finished when we say you are, doc. When they get here in a couple of days, you'll be going back home. Play nice, we'll put in a good word for you. Maybe they won't shoot you for treason."

"Get out, now!"

"Whoa, doc, no need to get all hostile. We're going."

Tork heard a door close, then lock.

A woman dressed in white entered the room. She looked Sylkaran or human. Tork wasn't sure. She seemed startled to find him awake. "You must have some metabolism. With all the painkillers i gave you, I didn't expect to see you awake for a few hours. You must have a tolerance built up."

"Fought in the MuTai. I've seen my share."

She nodded. "Brutal sport. Don't know why it hasn't been outlawed."

"No one's forced to fight in it."

"True," she said, then tapped the scar on his head. "I gather you aren't fighting anymore. This thing would prevent it."

"How did you know?"

"My name is Elza Danitch. I was part of the team that invented it."

Tork wanted to kill her. He struggled with the straps until the pain made him stop.

"Look... I'm not proud of that little gadget in your head. When they asked us to invent it, they said it was to control violent criminals... Said it would stop serial killers and psychopaths from killing. Then they started using it on anyone they wanted to take the fight out of. I'm sorry. If I had the facilities to take it out, I would. I had to leave Sylkaran side in a hurry. Only have the bare essentials with me."

"Our ship has a medical bay. Maybe it has what you need?"

"A ship? You could get me off this planet?"

"Maybe. The crew is sick. They need a doctor."

"What's wrong with them?"

"We don't know. Ship doesn't have anatomy data on humans or Sylkarans. Says maybe they're poisoned or going insane."

The woman glanced back toward the door she had entered through. "I might have some idea... Where were you before you came to Rygell?"

"Sylkaran space. Why?"

"Did you come here on a Sylkaran ship?"


"And you are the food on that ship for a while?"


"I know what it is. If you take me to them, I can help."

"What is it?"

She began unstrapping Tork from the table. "Withdrawal symptoms from a Sylkaran mind control drug. It's in the food and water. Your friends are probably coming off it, once they stopped eating our food."

Now Tork understood why the crew felt better after eating the Sylkaran rations he brought them. They started getting the drug again. 

"We should get to your ship quickly. The withdrawal symptoms of RX-5 can be fatal. Sometimes people try to commit suicide or act on impulses they'd normally suppress."

The doctor grabbed various bags and filled them with things from around the room. When the bag was full, she handed it to Tork. "Let's go."

Tork looked down at the bag in his hands, and wondered what about him made the doctor think she had the right to make him carry her luggage. For just a moment, he wanted to throw the bag at her and tell her to carry her own stuff. Before the implant started to cause him pain, Tork realized that she might be the only one who could save his crewmates. He swallowed his pride and stepped out onto the street after her.

She locked the door to her office, then muttered something about not coming back.

"OK, Tork... where's this ship of yours?"

"Pad 182. Follow me."


Back in CORA's medbay, it didn't take Elza long to confirm her initial diagnosis. The crew was experiending withdrawal symptoms of the RX-5 drug. They'd all been dosed with it while in Sylkaran space. Once aboard CORA, they were no longer eating Sylkaran food and no longer getting the drug their brains had become dependent on.

Elza had long ago created an antidote for RX-5, and went next door to the ship's research lab to produce enough of it to treat the crew.

Tork followed her there. "You said you could remove this thing in my head. Is that true?"

"Yes, but only if it hasn't been in there too long. After a while, your brain grows tightly around the implant and starts to develop a dependence on it. If it's removed after that, you can suffer brain damage or withdrawal effects that make RX-5 seem like a walk in the park."

"How long is too long?"

She stirred the ingredients in the beaker in front of her. "About six weeks. How long have you had it?"

"I'm not sure... at least a month."

"When I finish treating the others, we'll scan your head. I'll see if there's still time."

"Thank you," Tork said, rubbing the scar again. "They took everything from me when they stuck this in my head. I can't fight in the Mutai. I can't earn a living. I can't protect myself. It's making me a coward."

"I'm sorry. Really, I am. This wasn't how the implant was supposed to be used."

She filled several syringes with the liquid from the beaker and packed them into a case. Then she went back to the medbay.


Although she treated all the crew, including Tork, Crosby seemed to recover the fastest. Tork unstrapped Crosby, who sat up in his bed.

"I feel a bit weak... and hungry."

Elza ran a medical scanner over him. "You're dehydrated and a little malnourished. Tork, would you help Mr. Crosby get to the mess hall and fix him something to eat."

Tork nodded. Crosby wrapped his left arm around Tork and the two of them walked out of the medical bay in the direction of the nearest lift.


Crosby took a bite of something resembling chicken soup. "Are we sure this food is safe, Tork?"

"Doctor Dantich went through every bit of food and water on the ship. We threw out anything that had even the slightest trace of that Sylkaran drug."

"Good, good..." Crosby took another bite. There was an odd bitterness to the soup he didn't like, but he was hungry enough that he kept eating. "How'd you find her?"

"I got attacked the last time I left the ship. Bunch of guys who lost money on me on Feldon 7. Took everything I was carrying, then beat me and left me for dead. Danitch said the local cops found me and took me to her. She took care of me."

Crosby nodded and took another bite. "You trust her?"

"I don't know. I'm not sure I trust any Sylkaran. She saw my implant scar and knew what it was, recognized the drug in my system, and said she could help us. Said she was part of the group that invented the drug... and my implant."

"I'm surprised you let her live. I know how much you hate that thing." Crosby tipped the bowl up to his lips and drank. He decided that getting the soup down faster would be easier than continuing to spoon it in. The flavor was starting to get to him.

Tork nodded. "The implant made sure I couldn't do anything. She said she might be able to remove it."

Crosby raised an eyebrow, "That's good, right?" Tork filled Crosby's bowl with more soup. Crosby pushed it back, shaking his head. He'd had enough of it, whatever it was.

"I think so," Tork said. He walked back to the cabinets to find something else for Crosby to eat. "With this thing in my head, I'm a walking victim. I can't fight back."

"That's not entirely true," Danitch said, entering the room and making her way to the food storage. "We weren't allowed to publish this, but the device only punishes intention - not results."

"What do you mean?" Tork said.

"One of our test subjects was a genius-level psychopath named Raiker. He figured out that the device can only read your intention to do violence. He found that he could hurt people without triggering the device's pain response."


"Well," Danitch said, placing a ration container into the rehydration and heating unit, "I'm not sure we ever completely understood it. But imagine this... let's say you wanted to hurt Mr. Crosby over there. If you start thinking about that, it's going to hurt you."

Tork nodded. "Right."

"Let's say that instead, you wipe the floor with oil so it's slippery. You wait for Crosby to step on the oil. Then you form in your head the thought that you want to embarrass him, or pull a practical joke on him. The moment he steps on the oily floor, you give him a shove, thinking in your head that you're just going to make him fall down and humiliate him... but you shove him harder than you need to. He slips in the oil, and your extra shove makes his head strike the floor hard enough to knock him unconscious - or kill him. When the implant  registers that you've hurt someone it'll hit you with pain, but the damage has been done."

Tork thought about this, trying to imagine how he could have used it when the men from Feldon-7 attacked him. The pain hit him hard.

Seeing him wince, Danitch sighed, "It's harder than it sounds. Out of a hundred test subjects, Raiker was the only one who could do it. He tried to teach the others so they could organize a mass escape from the facility."

Crosby turned toward her, "How did that turn out?"

"Raiker got away, but the others were all recaptured. Their implants kicked in, and they eventually passed out from the pain." Danitch took a drink from the tumbler in front of her.

"How are the others, doctor?" Crosby took a bite from the plate Tork placed in front of him.

"They're going to need a little while longer. The food Tork bought at the town market was laced with RX-5, so they've gotten a more recent dose of the drug. I think I'll have it out of their system by tomorrow."

"Great. Thank you."

She took a bite of something brown. Her lip curled in disgust, but she kept eating. "You keep some pretty terrible food on this ship."

"Courtesy of the previous owners. They seemed to love things that are bitter or sour, or bitter and sour."

She nodded. "Don't restock on Rygell-3."


"There are two Sylkaran intelligence agents here. They've been lacing the local food and water with RX-5."

"Where did they get it?"

Danitch sighed and looked down at the floor. "From me, I'm afraid. The High Council has wanted to annex this planet for a while. When these two tracked me here, they saw their chance to rise up in the ranks. They forced me to make the drug, then started using it to subdue the local population."

Crosby felt a chill go through him. "How long will that take?"

"I suspect most of the planet's had enough of the drug by now that they won't put up much of a fight when the invasion fleet arrives."

"Invasion fleet? When? How many?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. I've heard that the drug is effective enough that they rarely need to bring more than a thousand troops to subdue a whole planet."

Crosby began doing the math in his head. "So... maybe a battleship and a few cruisers. CORA?"

The ship's computer responded through the intercom speaker above their heads. "Yes, Ethan?"

"I need you to prepare to lift off, and scan the sky above us. If any large ships appear in orbit, get us off the ground immediately."

Crosby felt the ship begin to shake. "CORA, I said when the ships appear."

"Acknowledged. A Sylkaran battleship and four cruisers have just been detected."

"Alright, cloak on, charge weapons, prepare for battle."


"Doctor, ready or not, I need you to release the others and send them to the bridge."

"Do you think we can get away? They'll shoot us down."

Crosby smiled. "This ship's a lot tougher than she looks. I intend to stop this invasion before it starts."

Danitch's eyes widened. "Then you're going to need all our help."

The three of them ran to the lift. Crosby and Tork exited on the middle deck and ran toward the bridge. Danitch continued to the lower deck to release the others from their rejuvenation cells.


Crosby took his seat in the chair at the rear of the bridge, while Tork sat down at the tactical scanners. "Tork, put the tactical display up."

In the air in front of the bridge, CORA projected a three-dimensional image of the surrounding area of space. In the image, Crosby could see the five Sylkaran ships.

"Incoming signal," CORA said, "directed at the planet below."

"Let's hear it." Crosby said. "And get us into position behind the battleship."


The Sylkaran broadcast came over the loudspeaker, "This is the Sylkaran Empire battlefleet Gamma Five. Rygell-3, you are ordered to surrender control of this planet to the Sylkaran Empire immediately. If you resist, you will be destroyed."

Mills, Monroe, Brell, and Danitch entered the bridge. Monroe took her position behind the flight controls. Mills took the weapons. Brell took the ship's internal monitoring. Danitch sat in one of the benches along the back wall of the bridge.

Brell looked at Crosby, his eyes wide, "We've got to run. They have us outnumbered!"

Crosby shook his head. "They can't see us yet. Trust me, we're the ones with the advantage here."

"I'd feel better if we ran."

"Of course you would," Mills said, rolling his eyes. "You always feel better running away."

"Stop it, Mills," Crosby said, "I want you to target the battleship in these three spots. Then, do your best to hit each of the cruisers here, here, and there."

Mills looked at the weapons console and nodded. He started programming the targets into the weapon control system.

"Optimimum firing range achieved," CORA told him.

"OK. CORA, drop the cloak, raise the shields, and transfer flight control to Monroe."


As soon as the cloak dropped, Mills opened fire on the battleship. He managed to hit his targets on two of the cruisers before Monroe had to move the ship to evade incoming torpedoes.

"Incoming transmission," CORA said.

"Attention unidentified ship. You have attacked vessels belonging to the Sylkaran Empire. This is an act of war. Identify yourself, then stand down and prepare to surrender."

"Open a channel, CORA," Crosby said, "This is the starship CORA. You'll notice that our initial salvo took out your battleship's FTL and primary weapons, and disabled two of your cruisers. It is you who will surrender."

"The Sylkaran Empire surrenders to no one. Prepare to die."

The two working cruisers closed on CORA, firing every weapon in their arsenal. Monroe dodged as much of the weapons fire as she could. Still the ship rocked, shook, and jerked as the Sylkaran weapons struck CORA's shields.

Mills had been watching for the right time to strike, then fired CORA's weapons. The nearest cruiser exploded.

Monroe jerked the ship to a stop, and the second cruiser flew past them. Mills fired CORA's weapons, and the cruiser exploded.

"Turn us around," Crosby said, "Take us back to the fleet."

Brell's face turned white. He turned to Crosby, "The battleship! It's weapons are online!"

"They're better than I thought," Crosby said. "CORA, engage the cloak. Monroe--"

"You don't have to tell me, changing course." She quickly turned the ship, so that any weapons fire from the battleship would have no chance of striking CORA.

"Get into point blank range on the battleship's weapons array. As soon as you're there, we'll drop the cloak and fire."

Monroe nodded. Mills started programming targets into the firing computer.

"Unidentified ship, you will surrender at once or we will destroy you."

Crosby held up a hand. "They can't see us. It's a bluff." He looked at the scanner in front of him. "Their engines are still down. We've got 'em."

Monroe got CORA close to the battleship's weapons control system, and dropped the cloak. Mills fired the weapons.

"Fly us right next to their bridge, right here," Crosby said. "If they manage to bring any other weapons online, I want them to think twice before firing."

"OK," Monroe said, and brought CORA into position.

"Attention Sylkaran fleet Gamma Five. Stand down at once or we will destroy you. You've seen what we can do. By now you must realize that we can make good on that promise."

No message came from the Sylkarans.

"Alright," Crosby said. "You appear to be stalling for time. Here is another sample of our capabilities." He turned to Mills. "Take out the cruiser to our left."

Mills nodded and fired CORA's weapons. The cruiser exploded.

"This is Admiral Kraht. We surrender. Who are you?"

"Who we are is not important. What I have to say is. You have two spies on the planet below. You will order them to come aboard your ship at once. When they are aboard, you will repair your FTL engines and return to Sylkaran space. You will report this incident to your superiors. You will warn them in the strongest possible terms that this starship and others like it are protecting Rygell-3. If you attempt to invade this planet again, you will incur the full measure of our wrath. Acknowledge."

"Acknowledged. Kraht out."

Mills looked at Crosby. "Really? A fleet of these ships is protecting the planet? What if they don't believe you?"

"In their place, right now I'd be assessing the threat. One ship managed to take out one of their battleships and four cruisers. I've hinted that there are more like it. They know we can cloak the ship, and that their scanners can't see it. So they'll never know if there is one CORA in orbit, or a dozen."

"And you're naive enough to think they won't come back?"

"No. I'm sure they will, eventually. They'll wonder if we're still here. They'll want to try their luck at taking us out. I'm hoping by then that the Rygellians can mount enough of a defense that they'll decide it's not worth invading again. Especially," Crosby said, gesturing toward Danitch, "if the good doctor here will teach them how to make an antidote for RX-5. If they find out their drug is worthless here, it might make Rygell-3 a very unappealing target."

"True," Mills said, nodding, "Taking over a planet of drugged sheep is easy. Taking on a billion people who expect it is a lot harder."

"Exactly. What say you, doctor?"

"I'm in."


When the remnants of the Sylkaran fleet left orbit, Danitch took Tork down to the medbay and scanned his head.

"The implant is starting to fuse with your nervous system, and there are already signs of dependence on it. If I remove it, there's a chance of permanent brain damage. You may also experience some chemical withdrawal symptoms."

Tork considered this. Removing the implant would give him back his identity. It would allow him to fight again, and to reclaim his manhood. It would remove the control the Sylkarans had over him.

He opened his mouth to tell Danitch that he wanted her to prepare for surgery, then stopped. Memories of his life before the implant rushed back. He saw himself killing dozens of Sylkarans at the detention center. He saw himself attacking strangers and friends alike, using his strength and fighting skills to get what he wanted.

Then he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Crosby and the others were behind him, their faces the textbook image of concern. They considered him a friend, part of their crew. He'd never had a group of friends like this before. If the implant was removed, and his rage had no limits, would they still want him aboard, still help him free Brador from Sylkaran influence? He sighed, knowing the answer. Eventually, he'd attack one or more of them. They'd see him as a loose cannon, a threat to their safety.

Still, in his current state, Tork knew he was a liability to the crew. In a fight, he'd be unable to pitch in, to do his part. They'd have to protect him, like a child.

"Doctor?" Tork looked in her eyes.

"Yes, Tork?"

"Suppose we leave the implant alone. Can you help me learn to work around it, like Raiker did?"

"I can try, but why would you want to do that?"

"Well, you didn't know me before. I've been a fighter most of my life. Since I got the implant, I realized that I was kind of a bully, too. I've never really had friends, not like the ones here. If you take it out, I'm afraid I'll go back to being that Bradoran again... the one who hits first and thinks second."

"I see."

"But if you leave it in, I'm putting the others at risk. I need to be able to defend myself, and defend them if I have to."

"If it's what you really want, I'll do what I can to help you. You have my word."


For the next few weeks, Crosby and Danitch worked with the government of Rygell-3. Danitch helped them manufacture the RX-5 antidote and detection tools. Crosby taught them counterespionage, combat tactics, and helped them brainstorm ways to prevent an invasion. Mills and Brell helped the Rygellians shore up their electronic and physical security. While it was still possible that the Sylkaran fleet could conquer Rygell-3, it wouldn't be an easy task.

As a further deterrent, Mills worked with Rygellian engineers to develop micro-satellites that could be placed in orbit around the planet. The satellites would detect incoming Sylkaran ships, at least those designs known to be part of the Sylkaran battle fleet, and broadcast threatening messages in Crosby's voice. They hoped this would, at least for a while, fool any Sylkaran fleet into thinking CORA and her hypothetical siblings were still there.

The Sylkaran president himself showed up when they announced that they were leaving. He saluted them all. "CORA and her crew are forever welcome on Rygell-3."

"Thank you, Mr. President," Crosby said, handing him a small device. "This quantum-linked transmitter can reach CORA wherever she is. If you need us, press this button. We'll respond as quickly as we can."

After several handshakes and hugs, the crew boarded CORA and lifted off.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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