Rachel E. Robinson 8900 Words Raeniverse@gmail.com UNTIL THE END: LOVE IN THE MIDST OF ORDER PART: ONE Defying the corporate rules in the name of true love From the overhead view of the outside cafeteria an abundance of every kind of tree imaginable lined the perimeter. All of the spectacular spawns of nature were faux because some one hundred years ago humans ravaged the planet and real trees were endangered. The employees dining at the cafeteria didn’t mind this. Even silk plants are beautiful in the sunlight. This was a luxury. The Company spared no expense for their people. The building itself looked like a giant crystal ball configured of perfect triangles. A dome fit for the wealthy. Every employee of the company was under contract for a minimum of five years, some ten years. To have Company insurance is to have the best in the five solar systems. So, the cafeteria was lavishly done and catered to every taste. The building adjacent to the cafeteria housed some two thousand employees. Technicians, Auditors and Agents have their own little workspace to do their reports. Everything is computerized except project plans and drafts. Paper went out of style with the trees. At 1:00 pm the second wave of employees head out to the cafeteria for lunch. It is done in an orderly fashion that is almost military. No one is in a hurry, no one is rude, and no one needs money. The Company provides for all their needs while they are on the clock. Lunch is a paid function. By 1:15pm it was time to socialize. Peter sat at a table close to the balcony and let the sun warm his face. The complex inside was kept at 65 degrees. His eyes were closed so he did not see the man standing near him. The sun was blocked and he opened his eyes. His sandy blonde curly hair flopped forward onto his brow. The guy was tall with brown straight hair that barely touched his shoulders. He also had a tan, which was unusual on this planet. Peter was intrigued by far. “Is anyone sitting with you?” The man had a tenor voice. “I guess you are.” Peter motioned across from him. The man slid into the seat and his long legs stretched out to the side. Peter guessed his height at around six feet three inches. He had the demeanor of a space pilot but his hair was a bit long. As he turned, the sun shined into his eyes and turned them into brilliant pools of blue. A half smile formed on his lips and his body relaxed as if he were at home alone. Running his hands through his hair he sighed. “So, is the food good here?” “It’s actually pretty good. I eat the same thing a lot though. Are you new here?” He threw his head back and let out a small laugh. “No. I just come to check in and do a report every now and then.” “Are you a pilot or something?” Peter couldn’t believe it. “That, and something. I just came off a three-month assignment. I thought I’d get a bite to eat while I’m here.” Peter leaned forward, his arms folded on the table. He was definitely interested now and besides, the guy had an intense sexuality that pulled him. His female half was struggling to stay at bay. It was the reason he was a technician. He was a Bi-Genetic: A gender shifter. “Three months, huh? Your companion must get worried.” “Why would you think I have a companion?” the pilot asked as he reached over and took a piece of the sandwich off Peter’s plate. He smiled almost mischievously as he put it in his mouth, his eyes never leaving Peter’s. “I don’t, I was just making sure.” The pilot laughed and it sounded like music to Peter. He threw his head back and let out a loud breath of air. The flirting was over. It was quite clear what they both wanted and there was no reason to beat around the bush. He sat up straight and locked eyes with Peter. He was no longer smiling. “I think you should show me around this place sometime when you’re not busy.” “Hmm, I think so too.” Peter had to look away from the pilot’s piercing eyes. “You’re a shifter. So, what’s your female name?” “It’s kind of crass, but it’s legal.” “Tell me. I’ll tell you my name.” “Your real name or the name you’re using for now until your next mission?” “My real one.” He whispered leaning closer to Peter. “Patina,” Peter whispered back to him. “Now, your name, Mr. Pilot.” “Shel, like Shelton, only shorter.” “I can’t call you that in public though.” “Then call me Nate, for now.” He leaned back into the chair and smiled again. “I have to go. Debriefing.” “Then go. You know how to find me later.” “Oh, really?” Shel raised an eyebrow. “You think?” “All agents do,” Peter replied softly. Peter was awakened by the comm.-link flashing on the work desk across the room. He wiped his eyes and sat up. Memories were haunting his sleep more and more. He heard a groan and looked to his right. The wife that (The Company) had provided for him was rolling over onto her side. Reality slapped him in the face once again. He didn’t hate her but despised her presence. There was no love or even attraction between them but he consummated the arrangement to avoid suspicion. It had been almost four years and he still shuddered at the thought. She was pretty of course, eye candy, and did nothing for Peter. Only Shel could stir anything in him, and Shel was gone. Sighing in defeat, Peter threw off the sheet and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His feet touched the cool metal floor and it sent shivers up his spine. Underneath the metal was a foam core and beneath that, concrete; the Company’s idea of “state of the art” flooring. His hair flopped into his face and he blew it away. It had been cut shorter but he kept the bangs long. Standing, he made his way to the comm.-link and shut it off. The message read the usual: duty called. Turning towards the bed he leaned against the desk with his shoulders slumped. A flash of memory, lasting only a split second, ripped into his brain and in it he saw Shel smiling on the cafeteria deck. It nearly took Peter to his knees as his legs buckled and he fought back tears of rage. Not today. It was not the time for pain. In the bathroom made of stainless steel, Peter let the shower water drench him not picking up the body cleanser yet. He just stood with both hands flat on the wall, his outstretched arms holding him up while his chin lay on his chest. All Peter wanted was to end his existence at this very moment, but he couldn’t because his wife had woke up and was now chatting away at the face bowl about something trivial. He waited until she left then turned off the water. It didn’t matter to him if he was clean or not. He was working in the bunker across the hall from the bedroom today and he was not out to impress his wife. He was not meeting Shel today. He was not going to meet Shel ever again and that hurt. Peter came out of the bedroom dressed in work pants and shirt and looked into the living area. His wife was sitting on the sofa watching her daily program. “I’m going to be working in the bunker today.” She turned, her honey blonde curls bouncing. “Oh, okay. I won’t disturb you until lunch, okay?” “That’s fine.” Peter never addressed her as honey or dear or wife for that matter. “Do you want anything special? I can call up the cooking channel and see what’s new.” “No, whatever you have time for.” Peter hesitated at the bunker door. What he had been doing for the past few months could be seen as treason but he had no choice. The comm.-link was attached to a system that recorded what projects were being worked on by which technician. There were two monster cables, one red, and one blue which was the relay. Peter reached behind the wall panel and disconnected it by yanking it out of its housing. Once inside the bunker, he booted up the system and went searching through classified data on a particular mission in progress. A mission Shel had been on. Peter wanted to get the goods on Shel’s crew and what they had done to him. It was up to him to bring them to justice for their crimes. He didn’t care about the reprimand of his actions; just that he had made a promise to the only person he had ever loved. This secret mission was the last one that Shel had been on and it had cost him his human life. The schematics of the ship still in orbit came onto the screen and Peter located the medical room. It took longer than expected but Peter hacked into the ship’s mainframe and got the logs from Medical. In them was the proof that Peter needed to hang them all when they got back to Company headquarters. With the push of a button, he started to download the files. By this time his wife had called to him for lunch. As he stood from his chair he wondered why she didn’t just leave. He wouldn’t tell anyone-not a soul. Some sunlight had penetrated the clouds and the temperature had begun to rise. Shel and Peter walked through the park listening to other people frolic. The tension between them was thick. Shel was about to go on another mission and it was a long one-six months. They had been together for over two years now but things had changed. The Company had brought in a new policy. No fraternization with outside employees by inside employees and vice versa. This was three months ago. But, they still saw each other out of defiance and they loved each other. Shel slowed down his pace and looked down at his boots. He used to love long missions but now he wished he was a tech with a desk job like Peter. “I need you to know something before I go.” Peter stopped and waited. He didn’t know what was coming but he knew it had to be big. Their relationship had become so strong that they anticipated the other’s feelings without even trying. “It’s about the mission?” “Yeah, I want you to know what it is and where I’m going.” Peter’s eyes grew wide and he looked up at Shel. This was against protocol. “Why?” “Because if anything happens I want someone to know what happened to me no matter what The Company reports say.” “I wouldn’t believe anything they say, you know that.” “All the same.” Shel grabbed Peter by the shoulders and turned him until they were face to face. “I need you to know it from me.” This mission Peter looked into was no different than the others. Shel told him everything. That first time was nearly four years ago. Now, the one thing that Peter was afraid of had come true. That one day Shel would go on a mission and not make it back. The pain of that was almost too much to bear. Peter nearly choked on his own saliva, bringing him back to his loveless life and the realization that he was drooling out of sheer remembered pain. “I’ve got to stop!” He cried to himself. “Please,” he whispered. His wife had finally gone out to see an old friend in the building. Not far enough for Peter but at least he had some privacy for a short while. He checked the progress of the download and saw that it was finished. Jumping up from his chair, he hurriedly went to the wall panel outside the bunker and reconnected the blue monster cable. The comm.-link on the work desk in the bedroom went back to standby mode. He knows this because he heard it make a small beep. Back in the bunker he looked over the hard copy documents he had stolen from the basement library in headquarters. Now all he needed was someone he trusted to help him get the information to corporate. The wife had returned, Peter sighed in his head. He couldn’t remember her name half the time because he tried to forget she was there. She wasn’t exactly smart and it infuriated him. Why couldn’t The Company give him someone with a brain? He was a Technician after all and some stimulating conversation wouldn’t hurt. Thank God she bought dinner instead of cooking something. She wasn’t very good at that either. Enough of this. Peter had better things to think about. Like, who could he trust? Most of the employees in his building were loyal Company people. One whiff of this info and they would rat him out. Thinking was getting harder these days. His mind would wander to times spent with Shel and the pain deep inside would immobilize him. But he had to now and so he sucked it up and racked his brain for an answer. Nothing came for a while and what did come was another unexpected memory: One that reiterated his reasons for committing the unthinkable act. Peter tried to push the memory back but it had a life of its own. It flooded his brain and when he opened his eyes he didn’t see the bunker he was sitting in but the courtyard of his building from some months ago. The Company Technicians Department had a small banquet for an exceptional employee and Peter was not that person. He was not disappointed in any way because the less recognition, the better. He had to wear something business like and felt foolish in his light brown casual suit. The more than a few alcoholic beverages consumed made him a little drunk so he didn’t hear or see anything around until something like a lightning bolt went through his head. It was painful and Peter realized the feeling was hatred though not towards him. The pain was reeling but he was still able to stand. As he turned around to face whatever it was that psychically attacked him, he could feel electricity buzzing in the air. Floating across the courtyard was an alien being, its skin a pea soup green, the texture looking as such. The head was twice the size of a human’s and it wore a khaki brown robe that flowed to the bottom of its feet. Peter fell backwards onto the sand stone colored steps. He didn’t know how or why but this thing had been waiting for him. As it got closer, it spoke. Not with its mouth but inside Peter’s head. “I know you are afraid because of the way I look. But you know I would never hurt you. They did this to me and now they must pay.” “Oh no,” Peter breathed as he recognized the voice in his head. “I had to see you one last time before I kill them all for this.” Peter sat against the steps and cried. Not because of what this thing that used to be Shel was saying but that it was Shel. He was no longer a human being but some twisted higher form. Wiping the tears from his eyes, Peter stood up and looked the thing that was now Shel in the one human eye it had. “You must expose them for their crimes. The Company must know.” Shel lifted an arm limb and reached for Peter. The limb ended with claw like tentacles. Seeing this, Shel retracted it in frustration. It backed away out of the courtyard leaving Peter to stand in silence-tears streaming down his face. Company protocol was like religion. Policy was the law and anything that questioned The Company’s motives was considered an act of treason. This was not going to stop Peter from going to a trusted mentor and give up the goods on Shel’s mission. He still had access to high security sectors so getting in was not hard. It was midday in the Data Retrieval office, which meant everyone was very busy. Peter went straight in to the hub of the building. He slid his access badge through the reader on the side of the hydraulic door. At first it hesitated then the doors opened to reveal a stark white lab and an old gray haired man in a lab coat. His mentor turned and smiled at Peter. “Well, what brings my old protégé into this part of the show?” “Something not so good.” Peter got closer to the man. “I need your help. You’re the only one I can trust with this.” “What do you have, son?” The mentor’s brows came together. Peter handed him the mini disc that he had burned in the bunker. This was a dangerous thing he was doing but he didn’t care as long as it would help bring Shel’s crew to justice. “It’s information about a mission that has gone bad.” “How did you know about this mission? You need a ship’s access code to get this.” “It doesn’t matter. I need to get this to a Control Agent up above.” The mentor looked at the young man in front of him and sighed. Risky was an understatement for this kind of work. He thought hard about what Peter was asking him to do. “I’ll see what I can do. Just leave the info with me. I think we can get an answer in a few days.” “You gotta’ hurry. The ship will be docking in two weeks.” “Go on now, don’t let this worry you anymore.” Peter smiled and turned to leave. “Thanks. I knew you were the only one I could trust.” With that Peter left the lab. The next day Peter had to go to work at the Technician Building. His cubicle was near a window on the fourth floor. It served its purpose well. As lunchtime rolled around he heard a ruckus behind him. At the elevators three Agents came down the corridor looking serious. The closer they got Peter realized with horror that they were here to get him. His mentor had betrayed him after all. To avoid a scene, Peter stood and went right up to the first Agent. “You don’t have to take me by force. I know you’re here for me.” “Very good, Technician. Come with us.” They parted to let Peter between them and they all boarded the elevator together. It was quick, simple and painless. Aboard the Shweitza the crew was frantic. They had successfully captured the Shel creature and gotten it back on the ship. The medical staff was prepping for the reversal procedure to be done immediately. This was almost a disaster. There was no authorization to use the alien procedure on a human, let alone a Company Agent. When it got away it cloaked itself so it could not be traced. But, it did give off a strange signature that the crew locked on. It was now sedated and ready for surgery. Ten hours later their Pilot, Shel, was in recovery and under strict observation. The entire crew took turns watching over his recovery waiting for him to wake up. So far the procedure seemed successful. There was no indication that he had been altered with alien DNA. Shel had been returned to normal. The ship was dimly lit due to power being on reserve. Everyone was asleep except the guards in Medical. The two men paced the corridors with little or no interest in the man on the table inside and this was their mistake because Shel was in fact awake. He had been waiting for the ship to wind down, his anger intense like a raging fire with revenge the only thing on his mind. As the two guards disappeared to march down opposite ends of the corridor, Shel slipped off of the table and went to the double doors of Medical. Reaching behind him he grabbed a heavy object and tossed it across the room. The noise rang loudly in the open space, bringing the two guards running to the doors. One swiped his access card through the reader and pushed the doors open. Shel waited for both of them to enter before he attacked. It was over in a matter seconds. He didn’t kill them like he had planned but they were badly hurt. For someone who had just come out of surgery he was very agile and cunning. Anger fueled his rage and this was not good for the crew that he had trusted with his life for so many years. It was unforgivable how they drugged, altered, and turned him into a monster. Using the access card he took from one of the guards he opened the generator room. It was time to reprogram the Shweitza to do his bidding and the crew won’t know what hit them. The alarms went off shattering the dead silence inside the ship causing the crew to scramble in a panic. The co-pilot went to the main computer and tried to get a reading. “Someone has reprogrammed the ship’s computer!” “What’s happening?” A female biochemist yelled as she tried to hold on. The ship was shaking due to being off course without navigation. It was heading into freefall unless they could restore control. One of the Medical Technicians came bursting onto the deck screaming. “Shel is missing! The two guards are down!” “Shit!” the co-pilot exclaimed as he slammed his face on the panel. “We have to find him!” “He did this, didn’t he?” The medical tech asked. “One emergency ship has been launched. On course to the planet surface,” the systems tech called back. “Send may-day. We’re not going to make it to the surface in the ship’s condition. The Company is going to have to bring us down by remote.” “What about Shel?” The biochemist looked worried. “Hopefully his ship explodes on reentry. The Company can’t know what we’ve done.” Shel made a crash landing outside the city barrier. The ship blended with all the other debris that lay in ruins around the steel and concrete walls that enclosed the city beyond. Crashed ships, obsolete machines, and other pieces considered garbage littered the area. He would go undetected in this zone. It took him a little over two hours to reach the base of the wall and then he had to find an entrance. Getting into the city would be easy because he was a trained Company Agent after all. Once inside the city, Shel headed for his hide out located near the center hub underground. He had to walk because using credits for a taxi would trigger the system. His body was in pain but there would be no rest for him until he reached his destination. The procedures took a toll on the human species unlike any other. Shel could feel that something was wrong inside of him but fixing it would have to wait. Peter was getting tired. The interrogation had been going on for hours and the agents were getting hostile. Peter wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. It had been almost a week. Accusations flew but none made sense. He would not tell them out of loyalty and love. “Who are you collecting this data for?” An Agent with slicked back blonde hair asked angrily. “When did you hack into the system to get these access codes?” “I’m not spying for anyone and I didn’t hack into anything.” “The only way you could get this data is if you hacked into the Company mainframe.” “Or, did you get it from a malcontent in The Company?” A different agent threw this explanation into the mix. “Do you know what the penalty is for treason?” “I didn’t betray The Company! I’m not spying for anyone!” Peter was on the verge of tears but he still would not tell them how he got the information. Whatever they did to him would not matter. The third, quieter, Agent stood up and leaned down in front of Peter. His eyes were an icy green like glass. There was no emotion in those eyes. This Agent was probably an assassin for The Company at one time and very efficient at his job. “I think a fitting punishment for you would be public humiliation. We haven’t had one of those in a while. I think it would be the perfect crowd pleaser. Maybe after that you will cooperate.” “I told you,” Peter sobbed. “Yes, you did.” The Agent turned to the others. “Schedule it for tomorrow afternoon. Broadcast the time.” Turning back to Peter he said, “You will remain in custody until then.” The agents left the cell in a single file line and the doors sealed behind them. Peter swallowed back his tears and forced himself to calm down. No matter what they did, he would never betray Shel. Peter decided to sleep since there was nothing he could do about his situation and as usual, he dreamed about Shel. Shel entered his hideout and flopped down on the bed. He was exhausted but his mind raced with thoughts of his life before all of this happened. He had trusted his crew for many years and now he finally understood why High Clearance Agents advised him to never trust anyone. He sat up and took off his flight jacket. Running his fingers through his hair felt strange since the last time he attempted that he had no hair and his fingers were something else. Shel lay back down and closed his eyes. He began to remember times before the mission and his moments with Peter. The facility was the size of a small city; its population made up entirely of Company workers with the highest clearance. The main corridor stretched for miles and at least ten people could walk width wise comfortably. Shel walked at a leisurely pace to his briefing room. Each agent had its own manager to watch over and debrief them on current missions. He had the same manager for years and felt that he was trustworthy. At the entrance to the room, Shel swiped his access card and the door slid open. His manager sat the workstation to the side of the door. He didn’t turn around to acknowledge Shel, just waved his free arm for him to sit down. Shel watched the man work on a component with little interest. He could have done that for him while the debriefing was going on. Shel’s manager was a heavy set man in his forties with dark thick hair cut short and a well trimmed beard. He reminded Shel of a wrestler back in the early twenty first century. When he was done toying with the component he looked towards Shel and grimaced. “You look like shit. What were you doing last night?” “It doesn’t matter, I’m here aren’t I?” Shel slumped back into the chair. “Let me guess, your mystery lover.” “She’s not really a mystery since you know about it.” “Ah, yes. But I don’t know who this person is.” “Are we going to go over the mission or what?” “In a moment. You never told me how long this romance has been going on.” “Why?” “Because, it concerns me. You have declined a few more dangerous assignments in the past two to three years. It can’t have been going on that long, has it?” Shel let his head drop back against the chair and his right hand went to his forehead. His left knee began to move back and forth. A sigh escaped his lips as he brought his head back up and he looked at his manager square in the eyes. “Yes, it’s been going on that long.” “Are you serious?” His manager was incredulous. “Yeah, now can we drop it?” “Why didn’t you tell a Company Agent upstairs? Relationships that long they have to take into consideration.” “There is no guarantee that they would allow us to stay together. We couldn’t risk that.” “Very true. So, are you in love?” “Ask me that after the mission.” That mission went well and Shel was back on the planet a few weeks later. The safe missions wouldn’t last for long. The word going around was that Shel was getting soft and was afraid to get hurt during any operation. It was a year later that he got the word that he was going on a mission that he declined a few weeks before it showed up on the roster. His heart sank realizing that he had to tell Peter he was going away again. Shel had to prove that he was capable of doing his job no matter what the mission. On the day of his debriefing for his mission on the Shweitza, Shel and Patina sat at a table outside on the balcony of the restaurant. They were silent for a long time after dinner. Shel couldn’t look at her without feeling guilty. Patina’s eyes were lowered and staring into the empty bowl. Shel finally cleared his throat and said something. “I promise you, it’s not a dangerous assignment. I just have to help supervise a new procedure on the ship. No guns or outer planetary threats. I’ll be back in a few months.” “When do you leave?” “In two days.” Shel reached over and grabbed her hands. “I would stay here with you forever if I could. You know that.” “I have this feeling in my gut that tells me it is dangerous and you just don’t want me to feel afraid for you.” “No, that’s not true! Look at me, I’m calm. I have debriefing tonight. We have all day.” “I just,” Patina started. Shel put a finger to her lips. “Let’s get out of here, okay?” It shouldn’t have happened but there was no way Shel was going to leave without something to remember her by. It was raw, uninhibited, desperate sex that ended abruptly and painfully. Dripping with sweat, they came together. Patina cried out in despair as Shel held back tears. His data link beeped twice and he forcibly pulled out of her in panic. He jumped up on shaky legs and began to find his clothes, not realizing that he had hurt her when he disengaged the way he did. “I’m sorry,” he spoke breathless, “I have to go. I’m late for my debriefing.” He looked over at her and stopped for a split second as his mind raced for something to say. He crawled back onto the bed and kissed her long and hard, his sweat drenched hair mingling with hers. As he lifted himself away from her body, he saw her eyes full of tears. He slid off the bed and went to the doorway. “I’ll be back, I promise you that.” Tears came from the corner of his eyes just as he turned away to see her roll over on her side and let out a cry of sorrow. Shel headed for his debriefing room in a blind fury. He was angry with himself for how he left Patina and there was nothing he could do about it. He didn’t remember entering the building or the room and his manager saw that there was something wrong. “What has gotten into you? You look bad, Shel.” “Please, let’s just get this over with.” Shel sat down in a huff. His left leg was jumping rapidly. He didn’t notice it but his manager did. “You need to calm down. Now, what’s wrong with you?” “I just…I made a bad judgment call. I had sex with her.” “So? You have sex with a lot of women.” “Not like this. I have this feeling that I may have,” Shel left the rest to him. “Impregnated her?” His manager’s eyes went wide. Shel put his hands to his face and leaned forward. “For your sake and hers I hope that’s not the case. She has a mate, right?” Shel nodded. “How do you get yourself in these situations? You have to get to medical and do some tests.” “What for?” Shel took his hands from his face and seemed angry. “Protocol. You’re going into space my friend. You know the drill.” “Fuck!” “As long as your levels don’t spike, no one will know that you just cleared your pipeline in the past twenty four hours. Now calm yourself down and let’s go over the agenda.” Shel woke up in a sweat and cried out. He controlled his breathing and patted his sheets down looking for the monitor remote. Finding it, he turned it on and got out of bed. The news was on spewing whatever The Company wanted you to know. As he paced the floor, he saw from the corner of his eye the announcement for a public punishment event and its time. When he saw the name and why, his blood went cold. It was scheduled to commence in a few hours and Shel knew there was no way he could get to the installation in time to stop it. He dropped to the floor and curled up in a ball for a few moments, taking deep breaths, then jumped up like a spring. They may torture her today but they wouldn’t have her after today. He had an arsenal in his hide out and a plan churning in his head. Peter was in his cell remembering that day when Shel left for the mission and the pain he left in his wake. It was only a few weeks later that Peter knew that a fetus was growing inside of his body. He had to get rid of it before anyone found out. He had a female mate and being pregnant himself would be hard to explain. He remembered going into the black market district as Patina looking for a disavowed medical technician. She found one and paid a lot of credits to get the embryo removal procedure done. The pain was excruciating but she had no choice. It was a part of Shel being ripped out of her and that alone was unbearable. Peter held his stomach as he slept in his cell waiting for his time slot for punishment. There would be no regrets today. What’s done is done. The time had come and Peter was ushered into an arena. In the middle of the open field stood two poles, each ten feet high. Hundreds of people were in the stands yelling and cheering. They were the VIP of The Company and they expected to be entertained. Peter couldn’t believe that this was to be his punishment. A man in a long black coat held an electrical whip in his hands. He was the one to dole out the sentence. Peter was stripped naked. His wrists and ankles were secured on the poles. The crowd was pleased with the display. Everything became a blur and his hearing changed. The volume was almost nullified as he saw the announcer’s lips moving to read Peter’s crimes. There were four huge monitors hanging inside the arena broadcasting the event. Peter hung his head and didn’t look up. The sentence was thirty lashes. Everyone cheered for it. The man with the whip had earplugs in his ears so he couldn’t hear any screams and be tempted to stop out of pity. An agent across from him gave the signal and he wielded his weapon to strike. The first strike took Peter’s breath away and he gasped for air. The second one let him know how painful it was going to be. At the eleventh strike, Peter began to scream. It was so horrendous that the crowd stopped cheering. The fourteenth forced Peter to shift into female stage and the screams continued. There was silence all around and even the agents looked a bit piqued. No guilty person screamed like that. Before number twenty could be executed, Patina lost consciousness. Her body went limp and an agent caught the whip’s master by the wrist, ceasing the momentum of the strike. On the streets, people watching the broadcast were at first cheering, then shocked, and then angry at The Company for such a display of cruelty. Shel had stopped for a brief moment near a monitor on the street and his whole body shook with rage. He watched until the end when the agent stopped the sentence. He was determined now more than ever to get Patina out of there so he proceeded towards the prison installation near the arena knowing it would take him at least two hours to get in. A medical team awaited the patient at the corridor of the arena. The whip marks were deep and the heat of the whip had cauterized the wounds yet some of them still sizzled. Agent One walked by Patina’s side all the way to the medical center. He was puzzled by what happened and the thought that he may have been wrong caused a feeling of uneasiness. He knew the scars would never heal properly but for now he was going to find out why she endured the sentence. Who was it that she wanted to protect so badly? Doctors on hand rushed to get the body scan done. As it went up and down her body, one of them noticed scarred tissue on the inside. The computer zeroed in on it and everyone saw the inside of the uterus. It was a wreck and they all knew why. “She was pregnant.” The first Doctor said. “Embryo removal, black market work no less.” Doctor number two. “She was desperate to go there. Why?” Doctor one. “Because, gentlemen,” Agent Two answered, “She has a wife. That would be a bit obvious, don’t you think?” “We will try to reduce the scars of the whip for now, but she needs to have this debauchery corrected as soon as possible.” Doctor two suggested as he shook his head. “When will you be done?” Agent One asked. “In about half an hour or so.” The technician on call interjected. The agents left the room and the third met them in the hall. It became obvious that their prisoner was protecting her lover. Now it was time to find out who the lover was. They wouldn’t have to wait too long. Two hours later the alarms went off in the installation. In another wing of the prison installation, the crew of the Shweitza sat in a cell waiting for debriefing from a head agent. They had been brought to the planet surface by remote and docked safely inside the complex. But the crew was brought here because they were a member short and no one was willing to explain why. The co pilot was having a hard time trying to keep his crew calm. Some blabbed at the mouth and he had to remind them that there were audiovisual devices everywhere. He was right. The three head agents were watching them on a monitor in the observation area not far from their holding cell. “What do you think they did with the body?” Agent Three. “Shot it out into space. They couldn’t leave it on the ship.” Agent Two. “No. There’s something they’re not going to tell us because it went against protocol.” Agent One. “It’s the reason why they had to dispose of the body.” While they watched the crew arguing amongst themselves, the alarms went off and all three agents switched to the security monitors. An unseen force was hitting each sector along the arena. The cameras were damaged and out of operation. The agents watched with amazement as high clearance areas opened for the unknown. “It’s a Company Agent,” Agent One declared. The cell holding Patina opened and Shel went in. He saw her wrapped in surgical cloth and stopped in his tracks. He didn’t want to hurt her but he had no choice. Taking a deep breath he picked her up and carried her out of the cell. Explanations would have to wait until he had them both safely out of the complex. He had put the camera outside the cell door on a time delay so he could get a head start. By the time the agents saw the daring rescue on their security monitors it was too late. Shel was out of the building with his prize. Seeing his face on the monitor gave the agents the answer they needed and when Agent Two ran the security code Shel had used to gain access to the installation, he nodded his head. “The missing crew member.” He stated in a dead pan tone. “But his crew says he’s dead and they seem so sure of themselves.” Agent Three. “Of course they’re sure. They assumed that they had killed him.” Agent One turned away from the monitors and leaned against the console. “Do you think they would be shocked to learn that a prisoner was rescued by him some moments ago?” “The lover that the technician was protecting.” Agent Two interjected. “And the father of a child that could not be born.” Agent Three added. “Let’s have a chat with the crew,” Agent One said as he walked to the door. His green eyes took on a glazed look that would make even the deadliest off world monster afraid to approach him. The door opened before he touched the panel to open it. A messenger stood blocking the doorway. In his hands were hardcopies of decoded information. “This is the rest of the files that the technician downloaded. We decoded them and you may want to read them before you go talk to the crew of the Shweitza. If anyone should have been punished today it should have been them.” He handed the agents each a copy. Reading it, Agent One’s demeanor changed. Even his counter parts moved away from him. A flow of electricity could be felt inside the small room. The messenger took it as a sign to leave. Agent One’s head turned to the others as if he were a robot and his eyes turned a shade darker. Agent Two would not have been surprised if he bared teeth as sharp as an animal’s and he waited for this. Agent Three stepped back up towards him and made a suggestion. “I request permission to interrogate the crew and be observed for evaluation.” “Request granted.” If the crew was nervous before, it was nothing compared to now. When the agents walked in the crew drew in breaths in unison. They knew about Agent One but had never had to meet him. It was not a good thing to meet Agent One. He was a Company assassin who did his job well. By deduction they knew that the other two agents were Two and Three. This did not look good for the remaining crew of the Shweitza. Shel set Patina down on unsteady legs in an alleyway just outside the homeless district. He could feel her body shake with pain but she looked into his eyes and smiled despite it. She wore the long coat that Shel was wearing earlier and the surgical cloth. Her bare feet touched the filthy pavement. He kissed her then. Softly, lovingly, afraid he might hurt her. She wanted more stability so leaned against the stone building. Her fingers ran through Shel’s hair. His hands lay flat on opposite sides of her head. A beggar came around a corner in the alley and saw them. It was unusual to see people so clean around this district and he almost went up to them to ask for money. He saw they had nothing except time and love for each other. But he stood in the dark and watched them for a while. Even when, still standing, they made love right there in the alley. The agents mingled in Agent One’s office after their interrogation of the crewmembers. They had to figure out a way to locate Patina and Shel without alerting the authorities in the surrounding districts. Only other agents could be dispatched to solve the problem. Agent Two stood near the door to ensure privacy. Agent One sat in front of a terminal researching Patina’s contract. After an hour of silence, Agent One leaned back into his chair and smiled. “Our technician has an interesting file. Look at the start date of the contract.” Agent Three leaned over and shrugged his shoulders. “What’s so special about it?” “It’s a revised contract. That’s not the original start date.” “Where do you see that?” “Here,” Agent One pointed on the screen to a line at the bottom that was blinking. “Let’s see what the original date was, shall we?” All three agents watched the screen as the computer retrieved the information requested. The original contract came up and they all straightened their posture. It shed light on a lot of unanswered questions. “The Company only recruited agents in that time frame.” Agent Two spoke. “Yes, which means our technician used to be one of us.” “That’s how he was able to get into the ship’s computer from planet side and get into the old man’s sector.” Agent One explained. He stood up from his chair and shut off the monitor. “Very sneaky. But first we must find them. They need medical treatment immediately.” “After you, sir,” Agent Three stepped aside to let Agent One pass. Shel made it to his hideout carrying Patina over his shoulders. He turned on the lights as he entered and wished he had cleaned up before hand. The bed was a mess but Patina didn’t mind. She motioned for him to set her down on it. He was so gentle doing it that she didn’t feel her body hit the mattress. Shel was out of breath and in pain as well so laid down next to her in a flop. Patina turned her head towards him and saw his forehead wrinkled up and his brow come together. “What’s wrong?” “My crew didn’t do a good job in returning me to human form. I can feel something is wrong. But, that can wait until I get you better.” “No, Shel, you need to get it fixed. No one can track us here. Right?” “I can’t take that chance,” Shel replied as he unzipped his flight jacket. He fell into sleep then and Patina followed only seconds later. The beggar flinched at the sight of Agent One’s eyes. They reminded him of a vicious creature he saw off world once. The green color was an intense icy hue. Two others stood opposite him and the beggar was frightened. He had heard stories about Company Agents and what they were capable of. The one to his left asked him a question but he didn’t hear it. “Huh?” “Have you seen a couple that resembles them?” “Oh, yeah, sure. The girl was pretty if you’re into that.” “Into what?” Agent Three cocked his head to one side. “She had like tiger stripes all over her body. Must be some kind of alien species, right?” “What were they doing in the alleyway?” Agent Two was getting impatient. “Oh it was beautiful.” Agent One’s right eyebrow shot up questioning. “They were definitely in love. You don’t see that anymore in this day and age. Hell, they had sex right there against the side of the building.” Agent Two seemed embarrassed but Agent One just nodded and thanked the beggar for his cooperation. He knew that they were on the right trail. There was a district not far from here that undercover agents used to hide out. It would not be hard to find them now. Shel was awake when he heard the sounds in the hallway. His body cried out in pain as he got up from the bed and stood. He went to his desk and grabbed the gun out of the top drawer. It was already loaded. The sounds became more refined directly on the other side of the door. Shel aimed a little higher than the entrance keypad. The door clicked and opened. Agent One anticipated Shel’s move and ordered everyone away from the doorway. He used to be an active agent so had the advantage on Shel. Agent One also understood Shel and why he was acting this way. As the door clicked open, the agents moved to the sidewalls out of range. Shel saw that no one stood in the doorway and immediately moved to the opposite side of the room. He realized in that split second that he was dealing with agents. A voice called to him and his trigger finger shook. He didn’t want to kill a fellow agent but if they pushed him too far he would. “I know you’re hurting, Shel, we know what happened on the Shweitza.” Agent One stepped into the doorway. The light from behind him made him look like an angel in a dark suit. “Lower your weapon, agent.” “I won’t let you take her! Just leave us alone!” Shel steadied himself. “Please.” “You need medical attention and so does she. If you love her,” Agent One didn’t finish. Shel’s hands were shaking uncontrollably. His body was going to betray him at any moment. The pain was intense but he would not lower his weapon until he was sure of their motives. “I do love her and that’s why I can’t trust you.” He turned to look at Patina still sleeping on the bed oblivious to what was going on. “We just want to help you, Shel, let us do that for you.” “You don’t understand!” Shel cried, “My crew did this to me! To me!” “And they will be punished as required. They won’t get away with this. I promise you that.” Both men locked eyes and the sincerity traveled between them. Shel lowered the gun and dropped to the floor. “That’s better. I wouldn’t have liked hurting a fellow agent.” Agent One gestured to Patina and two medics took her out of the room. Two more came in and waited by Shel’s side. “Please, take care of her first.” “We’ll take care of you both at the same time.” To the medics, “Make sure he’s comfortable on the way.” Agent One posted a guard at the hideout and followed the medical team out. Weeks later, the three agents had a small meeting about what to do with Shel and Patina. Certain rules of protocol suggested disciplinary action but Agent One did not want to adhere to those rules. He understood all too well what the two lovers were feeling and he was not going to be the one to take that from them. He had them called into the room and proceed with the meeting. “I’ve made a decision. Since both of your contracts are to expire in the next 40 days, I will release you from them for early retirement.” “That’s not right,” Shel began, “ My contract was a mass market one for agents and they only recruited agent at that time.” “Yes, I know.” Agent One stared at him until Shel turned to Patina who sat next to him. “You said you were a technician.” Patina nodded and grabbed his hand. She was going to tell him when he got back from his mission but never got the chance. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. She looked up at Agent One and nodded to him. “Due to injury while on a mission, this agent was reassigned to desk duty and a new contract was written. How do you think she was able to get access to the ship’s computer? She had her old clearance codes.” Shel was dumbfounded. His lover was just as dangerous as he was and he never knew it. “So, you’re letting us go? Just like that?” “New regulations require that Company employees of different sectors not fraternize with each other. This way the two of you can stay together.” Agent One leaned back in his chair and laid his right hand on the side of his face. “That’s all. You need to go to processing and then leave this facility.” Shel got up and then helped Patina out of her seat. For the first time in a long time she had an actual smile on her face. Not a strained one or one for show. He smiled back. As they reached the door and it opened, Agent One said, “Good luck.” The three agents were alone and Agent Two turned to Agent One. “Why were you so sympathetic to their cause?” Agent One’s eyes turned a soft shade and he didn’t answer for a long time. “Because, I was in love once. I remember what it felt like.” This silenced the other two agents. The thought of Agent One in love was hard to swallow. He was the coldest of all agents. That someone once loved him, and in return he loved them, seemed unrealistic but also like a lie. Agent One was known as an unlovable creature that you told horror stories to children about. Agent One knew what they were thinking and he would agree with them. In his present state yes, he was that creature. But a long time ago before he became a Company Agent, he was just like every other human on the planet.