Episode 209: The Commodore

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They let him see her, once. He’d gagged at the sight, started to turn away, then forced himself to look at her, to see what they’d done to her. Blood was everywhere, some old, some new, caked to her skin, matting her hair, so she looked like some unholy thing, a demon. But a pathetic demon, bent and broken. They’d broken her fingers, all but two of them. One eye too, one of those beautiful eyes, now just a blank socket. The rest was innumerable cuts and bumps and bruises and burns, all this in only six days. And the bitch—Yukiko, that was her name—kept smiling, even while she sliced away Amathea’s skin, and twisted her joints, and. . . . Kept smiling like it was the biggest joke in the universe.

He’d looked into Yakazuma’s eye, deep inside, and seen a flicker there, a bit of life. That was what he told himself as he lay awake that night. She wasn’t broken, not yet. She screamed—he’d heard her screaming, calling his name, calling out a hundred different names, begging the bitch to stop—but she wasn’t broken. Somehow he knew, though he couldn’t explain why. Then, they’d taken him away. Just to demonstrate that they weren’t pulling some elaborate scam, Matsukata had said.

They tortured Simon too, but not in earnest; it was more fun in his case, just entertainment. Nothing permanent, nothing serious, nothing like what Yakazuma had to endure. Pain drugs, psychological games, that sort of thing. The kind of torture that a man could withstand, given a reason. And, oh, did Simon have a reason.

He burned with hatred. It was like nothing he’d felt before, almost like a physical thing, writhing inside him, waiting for its chance to get free. He’d met people like Matsukata and the bitch, had even had drinks with people like them, but he’d never witnessed their . . . handiwork. When they were dead, he’d start on the rest of their kind, and he didn’t plan on stopping until their blood stained his hands. He spent hours dreaming of their brutal deaths, or quick deaths, or long, dragged-out deaths. As long as the end result was a still corpse, it warmed his heart.

When he was not being tortured, he was being questioned. Yakazuma was hurt no matter what he said. He’d started with outright lies—good lies, he’d thought, but not good enough—and then moved on to half-truths. When he thought he could get away with it, he told the outright truth. Somehow, they knew. Matsukata congratulated him, then turned to the intercom and told the bitch to proceed, and then the screams started again, hoarse, ragged, shuddering screams. The sessions stopped not at some logical juncture, but only when Yakazuma was no longer able to scream. Not that it mattered; whenever the room was silent, Simon heard her in his head, still screaming.

They were eight days on their voyage to meet the Commodore when Simon realized it was slowly driving him insane. They weren’t trying to break Yakazuma, had probably decided that they never could, that she was too strong, too crazy in her own way to be turned to their kind of madness. But Simon was perfect. Strong enough to fight them, but not strong enough to last. The cracks were appearing already. The worst part was, he didn’t know how to stop it. How could he stop it?

The ship was obviously one of the raiders in the Commodore’s little fleet. After two days on the station, they’d taken a shuttle flight out to this ship. Simon had seen a bit of the boat bay and some of the corridors, and he knew it was a purpose-built vessel, not quite a warship, but much stronger, much more combat-worthy than a merchant cruiser. She’d give Hornet a run, this little pirate sloop, despite her small size. No doubt her armament was limited, but she’d be quick and hard to catch. The perfect sort of raider, really. Much better than the ancient frigate they’d bagged above Makassar.

Days passed slowly, and Simon spent his time wondering where they were going, how long it would take to get there. How much longer could Yakazuma hold out? That, at least, seemed to register somewhere in Matsukata’s twisted brain, and the interrogations stopped for two days, then resumed every forty-eight hours, presumably to give Yakazuma some time to recover between sessions. Simon took a sort of perverse pleasure in hearing her screams grow louder again, knowing that she was still alive, still fighting. Just another sign, he thought, that he was going crazy. Only a matter of time.

“Let’s look at the fusion reactors again, shall we Tamil-san?” asked Matsukata, always a picture of politeness. The holo rotating above the otherwise barren table between them shifted into the shape of one of Hornet’s fusion reactors, just as Simon had described it twice before. The second time, he’d asked why there were doing this, why they were going over information he’d already given them. Matsukata had just smiled, and then switched on the intercom, and the screams had started, immediately, like the bitch had just been waiting, which of course she had been. Just waiting, that smile painted on her pretty face.

“What do you want to know about them?” Simon asked, his voice sounding no more alive than a cheap computer program.

“Do they feature a linear induction drive,” asked Matsukata, “or a sidewall injector?” His finger tapped the intercom switch.

“Linear,” Simon replied. “With a modulated beam, tight-pattern interference, and a multi-stage reaction buffer.”

“Just answer the question, Tamil-san,” said Matsukata. He smiled, then opened the intercom channel with a tiny touch of his middle finger. A moment later, Yakazuma started screaming, howling. She gasped in air, sucked it in, then blew it out again, in a shuddering shriek. Simon flinched visibly, and Matsukata’s smile widened considerably. He let the screaming continue for a minute, then shut off the intercom.

“Let’s proceed,” he said, the smile fading, just touching the corners of his mouth. Simon longed to reach out and take him in his hands and crush the life from him where he sat, but it was impossible. He was too weak, and bound to the chair besides. And Matsuakata was strong, as he’d shown before.

The bastard paused, though, as the jump siren rang loudly through the ship. A moment later, the raider fell through a wormhole, ripping a hole in Simon’s gut for a moment, making him want to throw up. Then the moment passed, and he straitened again, breathing a little faster. The throbbing hum of the gravitic generators faded, as usual, but something else seemed different. As though. . . .

“Captain to the bridge,” said a voice over the speaker system. The cool voice of a professional spacer calmed Simon instantly. He’d neither seen nor heard signs of anyone else on board the ship until that moment, only Matsukata and the bitch, always taunting him, acting as though they were alone on board.

Now, Matsukata was scowling, as though his little charade had been a part of his master plan. Simon watched, schooling his face to impassivity, as the other man stood and left the room, saying nothing and not even glancing at Simon as he left. Obviously, something was happening, something that was unexpected, and therefore in Simon’s favor. He hoped. What was the worst that could happen? Capture by pirates and execution? Much preferable to their current state. His heart started beating a little bit faster as he waited, staring at the rotating hologram of the reactor without seeing it.

It could have been twenty minutes, but was probably closer to half that time, when the door slid open and a man Simon had not seen before came into the compartment. He was dressed in a simple jumpsuit, with a railpistol strapped to his waist and a look of grim determination on his face. “The interview’s over for today,” he said, his voice strangely disconnected from his expression.

“Who are you?” Simon asked as the man came over and unbound him from the chair. He was pulled to his feet, his hands still fastened to each other behind his back, his ankles tightly chained as well, so that he could only shuffle behind the crewman.

“None of your concern,” answered the man. Simon just stared at him, memorizing his features as though he’d never seen anyone before who wasn’t Matsukata, who wasn’t the bitch.

Only five meters separated Simon’s Spartan cabin from the interrogation room, and they were there in seconds. The crewman led Simon to the bed, pushed him down—not ungently, he noted—and then stepped back to the hatch.

“You’re leaving my hands fastened,” Simon said, holding up his wrists behind his back.

“Yes,” replied the crewman. Then the hatch slid closed and silence descended again.

Sitting uncomfortably on the cot that was the compartment’s only furnishing, Simon tried to guess what was happening. Something had gone wrong. Perhaps a bad jump, leading them somewhere off course. Maybe there was a problem with the wormholer, something that would leave them stranded out here, all alone in some inhospitable system, or worse yet in the vast emptiness between stars, where there was no bright light, just shadows and trillions of kilometers of absolutely nothing. Or, it was possible that Matsukata had simply forgotten what day it was, too caught up in his private pursuits to keep up with the ship’s schedule. All the ideas, and many more, bounced around inside Simon’s head as he sat and waited, wondering.

He’d fallen asleep, despite himself, when the hatch opened again to admit the crewman, accompanied by Matsukata. And the bitch herself, her smile gone, finally, wiped off by bad news, if Matsukata’s face was any indication. The crewman stepped into the compartment and jerked Simon to his feet, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was the anger in those purple eyes. He’d not seen that emotion before, nor any other emotion, not in those eyes. Simon almost smiled, but had just enough sense left in him to keep the emotion hidden. Whatever was happening, he had to stay alive, for Yakazuma’s sake, and for his own revenge. When that time came, he’d smile. Oh, yes, he’d smile a lot then.

Without saying a word, the three of them, Matsukata, Yukiko, and the crewman led Simon through the corridor’s of the ship, heading for the boat bay, or so Simon guessed from what little he’d managed to learn of the small vessel’s layout. His heart started beating faster. It nearly stopped when they actually went through the big, heavy blast door that shut off the bay from the rest of the ship, and he saw the scene that had been laid out before him there, as though it was on a holoscreen, a movie playing back inside his head.

Yakazuma was on her knees, her head bowed, black hair matted into tangled dreadlocks glued with dried blood and worse. She was naked, not that humiliation was something that could have penetrated into her mind at this point. So little sound came from her that Simon wasn’t sure if she was even still alive, except that dead people have a hard time sitting up straight. He wanted to cry for her, wanted to cradle her in his arms and wash away the dirt and blood and heal her wounds. He wanted that very much.

It was a moment before Simon’s eyes traveled to the next person in the room, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman, older than him by twenty years at least, though it was hard to tell, hard eyes watching him from behind a mask of a face that concealed everything inside her pretty head. She wore a uniform of sorts, the kind of affected overwrought thing petty warlords dressed up in, but on her it looked right, somehow, and there was no doubt that this was the Commodore. Flanking her on either side were two men, similarly dressed though less well covered with medals and ribbons. Captains, presumably, of her little fleet. One looked disgusted, the other frightened. Simon guessed the latter was the captain of the ship he was on.

In a rank behind these three were a handful of junior officers, and five others that Simon would have pegged for marines, if he’d still been in the navy. As it were, they were simply large, heavily armed warriors, and the sort of men and women better avoided at all costs. Their eyes never stopped moving through the boat bay, constantly scanning for threats.

While Matsukata and Yukiko moved around the other side of Yakazuma, the crewman led Simon up to her side and pushed him down on his knees. Unlike Yakazuma, he glared up at the woman who now towered over him, her face still impassive, her eyes dangerous.

“You are Simon Tamil?” the Commodore asked, finally breaking the tense silence in the boat bay.

“Yes. And you’re the Commodore.”

She nodded. Her glance passed briefly to Yakazuma and back to him. “Tell me what has been happening here.”

“They told me they needed information,” said Simon, nodding his head towards the torturers. “They used her as leverage, to get me to talk. And, I think, to break me, drive me crazy. Pretty close to working, too.” He turned their way, throwing caution to the winds. Better to die now anyway. “You do a mean job of torturing people, Matsu.”

Matsukata’s face flushed and he opened his mouth to reply, but the Commodore cut him off with a simple glance, and Simon suddenly found himself wondering if he’d left the fusion reactor to jump into the sun.

“This ends now,” she said, spitting out the words as though she had a bad taste in her mouth. “Bring him.” The Commodore pointed at Simon, and he felt a surge of love for her, pure and unadulterated; she was taking him away from the crazy people, away from the pain. At that moment, he’d have done anything for her, and only a dim part of him realized how well Matsukata and the bitch had done their jobs.

Then it all went away. “Give the other one a decent burial,” she said.

“No!” screamed Simon, rushing to his feet before he could think about it. An iron-hard fist crashed into his midsection, doubling him over, and then another hand pincered the back of his neck and slammed his whole body face-down onto the deck. He let out a whimper, but kept his focus. “If you kill her,” he gasped, his mouth half-blocked by the ceramasteel deck plates, “I won’t tell you anything.”

“Then you die, too,” the Commodore said, sounding like she was talking about her morning coffee.

“Talk,” Simon said, struggling for air as the person holding him to the deck put a knee to his back and ground him into the deck. “Need to talk.”

There was a long silence as Simon’s life hung in the balance. For her part, Yakazuma neither moved nor spoke, just visible inside the edge of Simon’s peripheral vision. The Commodore was more easily visible, looking down at him with the curious expression of a cat hunting a mouse, head cocked slightly to one side. Then, she turned to Matsukata.

“Tamil and I will talk,” she told her torturer. “Alone.”

No one, it seemed, had the courage to second-guess the Commodore. Simon was lifted up and shepherded by the same burly marine-type who’d slammed him into the deck; they followed Matsukata, Simon still shuffling along in his chains, right back to the same interrogation chamber that he’d left not long ago. The sight of it, the thought of the imminent escape that now seemed threatened, made Simon feel faint, but he held on to his sanity for a moment longer. Whatever he said in this room, it would have to be damn good.

He was chained to chair once more, the Commodore standing opposite him, facing the wall and waiting for her subordinates to finish. They did so and left, only Matsukata hesitating a moment, wondering perhaps if he could get away with a comment. He decided against it and departed in silence. The hatch slid shut with an audible click, but the Commodore stayed standing, her back still to Simon. He was damned if he’d give this woman any satisfaction for her petty games, so he sat, waiting her out. Finally, she turned and sat.

“Why do you care about her?” she asked, catching Simon off guard.

“Does it matter?” he replied, honestly.

“Tell me.” She didn’t raise her voice, nor did her expression change, but the ring of steel in that command was formidable. She reminded Simon of Maccabee.

“Loyalty,” he replied.

“To her?” the Commodore pressed.

Simon shrugged. “Can we skip this part? I’m going to give you an evasive answer. You’re going to take it, or you’re not. Which is it?”

“I’ll pass, for now,” she replied, leaning back in the chair, half a smile on her face. “You’re refreshingly direct.”

“When I’m not playing Matsukata’s games.” Simon scowled for her benefit. He knew his own feelings.

“What can you offer me, if I spare her life?” she asked after a moment’s pause.

“I don’t know what you need,” he said. “Tell me what you need, and I’ll try to get it. It’s a simple as that. Spare our lives, and I’m your man.”

“I notice you didn’t say you could actually get what it is that I need,” she pointed out.

“I’m laying down everything I’ve got here,” he said, smiling slightly and shrugging as best he could while chained to the chair. “I can’t make any guarantees, but I get things done. Maccabee trusted me.”

He almost caught his breath at that simple statement. Whoever this woman was, Simon’s former captain had made it clear that there was bad blood between her and him, something on a deeply personal level. Simon had either sealed the deal or made a very bad mistake.

“And yet,” she said, her tone icy, “here you are, offering to betray his trust.”

This was not an angle that Simon had anticipated she’d take, but his mind was starting to work again. Just having the opportunity to speak without each word causing more pain to Yakazuma made his tongue loose.

“The situation has changed,” he said. Then, immediately, because he knew that was too glib an answer, he continued, “Maccabee trusted me to do my job, not to be his loyal servant. He’d expect me to do exactly what I’m doing.”

“And what do you think you’re doing, exactly?” She seemed more genuinely curious now, not trying to bait him into a mistake.

“I’m trying to save my life, and the life of my partner,” Simon replied. No point in mincing words now. “That’s all that matters to me, Commodore,” he explained. “I’ll do what you need me to do, what you want me to do, if it means that we’ll live.”

She pursed her lips in a moue of distaste. “That’s all you believe in? Just . . . living?” She shook her head, looking oddly sad. “There is more in this universe than life, Mister Tamil. We can all find a Cause, if we look hard enough. Sometimes it’s right under our noses. We just need to open our eyes to the Truth.” The capital letters were plainly spoken.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, trying to sound sincere. In Simon’s experience, life was the Cause most people followed, whether they paid lip service to some other glory or not. There were always exceptions, of course, and the Commodore was likely one of them, the way she was speaking. Best to tread carefully.

“I haven’t found my cause, yet, Commodore,” he continued. “But I know that one of the things Maccabee told me to do was keep Amathea alive. If that’s a cause, then I guess I’ve got one after all, because if my life will save hers, I’ll gladly give it.”

Her eyes widened. “He cares for her?” There was no doubt of whom she spoke. Simon sensed a pitfall ahead of him.

“Maccabee cares for all of his crew,” he said, trying to buy his tired mind some time. “Yakazuma volunteered for this mission, came up with the idea herself. Maccabee wasn’t going to let her risk it all alone.” Simon smiled bitterly. “Though if he had, I doubt you would have caught her. She saved my life first.”

“Yes, I know,” the Commodore replied, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. Then she said, “Very well. You’ll make yourself useful, or she’ll die.”

“No torture?”

“No guarantees from me, either, Mister Tamil,” she replied easily. “I’m forced to employ some unsavory characters. I don’t enjoy what Matsukata and his pet have done, but I’m not beyond using such means when necessary.” She shrugged. “That said, I don’t see it as being necessary, given your cooperation.” Glancing up at him, she arched an eyebrow. “I do have your cooperation?”

“Absolutely,” he said.