Part 6 of the Ballard of Black Rose
Clair Dock, Tjakiri
The massive, muscled man twisted and writhed, his sweat-soaked body straining against the thick leather straps of the medical bed. His was only semi-conscious, in a state of delirium, and oblivious to his surroundings. The only part of him that wasn’t moving couldn’t rightly be called “him”- the bare-metal prosthetic that ended in sharp, sinister claws remained firmly secured to the end of his stump. The cold, ghastly limb had been crudely grafted onto the man’s flesh, exposed tubing leading from the new appendage into his muscular flesh. Bloody, half-healed skin had been peeled back, the artificial bio-mass acting to limit the creep of necrotic flesh along the skeletal metal of the limb.
Beside the twisting hulk were two figures. Both wore medical jackets, hunched over an array of holo-instrumentation. On the display was an outline of the man’s body, complete with the cruel-looking prosthetic. The elder of the two, the same slim man who had unwillingly performed the procedure, looked up.
“His temperature is climbing too fast. We need more pharmaceuticals, or else his body will reject the limb entirely.”
His subordinate, a younger but equally dire-looking man, dabbed some cloth over his perspiring dark skin.
“Try telling that to the gang of thugs running this place,” he said quietly. “As far as they’re concerned, any medicine that doesn’t stim a whore or a soldier into another twelve hours of work is useless.”
The thin, elder man didn’t reply immediately, nodding and looking the holographic and onto the man’s grotesque limb. He frowned and typed a few notes on the interface.
“Give him another sedative. Something mild. He’s got to stop moving, or else the nerve bundles won’t bond to the synth ones.”
His assistant nodded, readying a syringe- and then hesitated. “And his- patron? What shall we tell her?”
A dour look crossed the surgeon’s face. “Nothing. At least, until there’s something to tell. Leave her to me. Just make sure that this brute’s heart doesn’t give out. It’s the only thing keeping him alive at this point.”
With a gasp, the man woke up. His massive, muscular body was soaked in sweat, still restrained by the leather straps over the bed. Bandages covered half-healed patches where his skin had been flayed, and his torso was raw and bruised in long, parallel lines where he had struggled against his restraints over the course of two days of fevered delirium.
Stryker Aune had seen better days.
Panicked, the hulking figure fought against the leather strips, his body trembling until he collapsed from exhaustion. Breathing hard, he looked around, his eyes slowly adjusting to the low light. He was in a medical bay of some kind, his clothes all cut away and numerous tubes leading in and out of his body. The memories of his past all rushed to him, but so much was missing. Images of pain, and betrayal, and a particularly hateful woman trying her best to kill him flooded his vision. But none of that mattered.
“Hel- hello? I’m awake, okay? What do you want with me?”
Stryker hoped that someone could at least hear him. He was surprised by how weak his voice sounded.
How long have I been out?
To his side, a holographic display shimmered to life. Standing behind it was a shadowy figure. It looked to be a man, but Stryker couldn’t be sure-
“Please try to relax. You’ve been through severe trauma.”
The muscular man’s eyes squinted as he tried to make out who was speaking to him. The voice was measured, dispassionate, clinical- something meant to soothe patients. Stryker again tested his bonds.
“Who are you? Where am I? Why am I tied up? And why are the lights off?”
The figure rose from the control panel and walked around the assembly until he was standing over Stryker. The bodybuilder still couldn’t make out the man’s face in the darkness, only a threadbare grey lab coat.
“All in good time, Mr. Aune. You’re on Clair Dock. You’re safe, and among friends.”
Stryker swallowed, and looked nervously up. “Then- you’ll untie me?”
The humanity that had been creeping into the man’s voice was replaced by his initial cold, clinical tone.
“The restraints are for your protection. Your protection- and ours. Now, you must rest. The bonds are not yet fully joined.”
Fear and confusion flashed in Stryker’s face. “‘Bonds’? What are you talking about?”
The doctor had produced a syringe, tapping the side and letting a test squirt into the air over his patient.
“All in good time. Rest.”
The large man’s eyes widened as he saw the needle approaching his restrained bicep. “No! Please! I just need a little time to adjust!”
For the first time, Stryker saw the man’s face as he bent over, plunging the needle into his patient’s arm. The man’s eyes weren’t nearly as cold as his voice had implied. If anything, they were sympathetic, in curious contrast to his tone.
“Yes,” he said. “You do.”
“So it’s done, then?”
Stryker’s eyes fluttered open. The room was still dark, and he had no idea how long he’d been out. But the voice- it was strong, commanding, belonging to woman he hadn’t seen since-
A chill shot through his stomach. No. Not her. Anyone but her.
“Technically, yes- but the device is untested. I’d like at least another week to-”
The woman’s voice cut him off. “We test it now. Bring him around.”
The lights flickered on. Instead of being nude like before, Stryker was covered in a white sheet. His eyes squinted as the sudden burst of light exploded in his vision. Standing over him was the same doctor as before, along with a younger, dark-skinned apprentice. Beside them was the women he’d dreaded ever seeing again.
His breath catching in his throat, he tried a weak smile.
“Hello again, Marra. Nice that I woke up during visiting hours, huh?”
The pirate queen didn’t answer, only shooting her agent a look of disgust and turning to the older doctor.
“Does he know?”
A look of concern crossed the medical professional’s eyes, as he shook his head, his gaze never leaving his patient. The look of irritation in Marra’s face intensified.
“Then I’d say it’s time. Show him. I want to see it.”
To Stryker’s chagrin, the man swallowed and hastily nodded. He bent over his muscular patient, looking him gravely in the eye.
“Mr. Aune, can you move your right hand?”
What the hell kind of question is that?
Stryker didn’t verbally answer, being content to make a fist. Under the sheet, a lump raised the cloth slightly. It was the exact thing that he’s expected, but something was off. His hand had clearly responded, but it was different. He could feel it- while at the same time he couldn’t. He dragged his fingers along the bed, expecting to feel smooth linen under his fingertips.
Instead, he heard a tearing noise as the material ripped.
Something’s wrong. Something is seriously wrong.
The doctor’s steady, clinical voice gave him something to focus on other than his renewed panic. “You must brace yourself, Mr. Aune.”
His heart pounding, Stryker looked at the doctor, and then Marra. Her expression was one of sadistic anticipation, eyes blazing in malevolence.
“Brace myself for what?
Instead of answering, the doctor nodded to his assistant. With practiced precision, the other man folded the sheet in half, revealing Stryker’s muscular, bandaged torso. The man stepped away, and Stryker looked down more on instinct than any solid expectation-
The man’s heartbeat accelerated, his mind refusing to believe what his eyes were reporting.
No, no, no, no, NO…
The muscle on his massive bicep on his right arm ended abruptly just above the elbow, but the limb itself did not. On a jagged, crude border between flesh and metal, a hideous, skeletal prosthetic extended past the meat. His forearm was a crude assembly of exposed actuators and metallic housing. In a panic, Stryker flexed his hand.
The claw responded, further tearing the sheets.
Again, the memories of struggle with Black Rose came rushing back to him. The torture, the flaying, the fight after he slipped free.
The collapsed bulkhead door, and his desperate move to cut off his own arm to escape.
No. This is all a dream. This can’t be real...
“What- what have you-”
Marra stepped forward, seething. “Done? Don’t you remember anything?”
Stryker swallowed, unable to take his eyes off his new appendage. “Black Rose. She captured me. I-”
“Yes. And then some indy hauled your worthless carcass into Clair. And you became my problem all over again.”
Stryker swallowed hard, the sight of Marra’s gaze more off-putting than his new limb. He was terrified, but he needed answers, too.
A look of contempt contorted the outlaw’s features. “It’s a reminder. Of the cost of failure. If the only way you can serve Black Omega is as some ham-fisted oaf, then that’s exactly what you’ll be.”
The man’s jaw dropped, his mind scrambling to put together what Marra was talking about. “What- what are you-”
With surprising swiftness, the woman crossed the distance between them, leaning over the bodybuilder and gripping his jaw, forcing him to look at her.
“On the station, after I recruited you. You thought you’d be clever and play double agent with that Fed bitch. Only you didn’t. You blew it for me, you blew it for Black Omega, and you blew it for yourself.”
Her fingers squeezed his jaw with painful strength, and then shoved his head to the side as she stood up.
“I should have known better than to trust some animal brute. But now that I know what you are-” She gestured to his limb.
“-we have the perfect role for you here. And I promise it won’t be anything too cerebral.”
The woman turned to the assistant, gesturing to Stryker. “Now release him. I want him in a labor battalion this time tomorrow.”
Both doctor’s jaws dropped. The elder one stepped forward. “Counselor, please! We need more time to-”
With a look, the pirate queen cut him off. “You’ve had enough time already. Now cut him loose. Clean him up. And speak of this with no one.”
Trembling, the surgeon nodded to his assistant. Hesitantly, the younger man unfastened the restraints that had kept Stryker immobilized. One by one, the straps were loosened and came off, allowing the bodybuilder to sit up. His mind was still a maelstrom of panic, but one thing that he’d heard- “labor battalions”- had sounded particularly ominous.
“Wait! What am I supposed to do with-”
Marra had already begun walking away, and the assistant held out his hand out to calm the panicked man. In a fit of anxiety and fear, Stryker instinctively reached out with his prosthetic to pull him out of the way.
That was the plan, at least.
The man’s arm, caught in the bodybuilder’s grip, snapped and bent with almost disdainful ease. The claws sliced through the skin and muscle, crushing the bone with a cracking, liquidly noise. Stryker didn’t even notice the damage he’d done, and the man himself was too shocked to scream for the first few seconds.
But scream he did. Long, and loud, and in equal parts terror and pain, instantly dropping to his knees by the medical bed. Under his white medical jacket, a dark red stain spread from the nearly-severed arm onto his shoulder and torso.
In a panic, Stryker released his grip, taken aback at what he’d done. There was so much blood...
No. I’m not a monster. Please. I’m not a monster.
The screams filled the medical bay, the other doctor dropping what he had been doing and already fashioned a makeshift tourniquet to stem the bleeding. Stryker was still bound to the table from the waist down, unable to do anything except look on in horror at his inadvertent handiwork. Already, the floor was a puddle of blood. The red, hot liquid seeped into the emergency drain beneath the table as the older doctor worked frantically to save his assistant’s arm.
And for the first time, Marrakech Morgan- infamous pirate, consiglieri
of Black Omega, and heir of Rabat- looked pleased.
This piece was written by the talented M. Lehman. Author of the Reaper Diaries
and Kyndi the Bad Ass Space Chick
Thanks to Marra Morgan
for her edits and input.
Image was found on the internet. I believe the artist is Qiao Shan.