The vibralarm in Joss Breylin’s watch pulsed harshly against the skin of his right arm, snatching him halfway out of the grip of a fitful nightmare and startling him enough to thrash against the sweat-soaked sheet. The inky, greasy smell of burned plastic and flesh filled his senses. A half a second later, he recovered enough of his wits to realize where he was, and he began to uncoil. It was just a memory…
Normally the band exuded a cocktail onto the skin above the arterial bundle in his wrist in shots timed with the vibrations, and when it worked, it would bring his mind and cardiovascular system alive in a brilliant flash. That didn’t happen this time could only mean one thing, and the thought of having to claw his way to consciousness without it made him anxious. He let the alarm continue to pulse, hoping it would help to jumpstart the various regions of his brain, though it would be so much easier just to roll back over and give in to the comforting abyss that wanted to devour him.
He was too far away from the edge of oblivion though, and thought relentlessly intruded.
Shit, the damn stimpack finally ran out, he thought blearily. I think there’s only one or two left, and the supply drop isn’t due for nine months. If the damn storms don’t delay it. He could already tell it was going to be yet another long day.
It seems like forever since I’ve gotten a decent night of sleep…
The vibrations continued to agitate a lonely warning against his wrist.
Almost nothing could be seen through the darkness of the bedroom. At times, the view from the enormous window beyond the foot of the bed showed a serene, unobstructed view of the edge of the perpetual sunset. It was so perfect that he supposed the house had been precisely situated where it was near the rim of Amity Canyon to present that exact view, likely for some long dead and forgotten mining exec. At the moment though, the view wasn’t available; Joss had drawn the opaque protective screens over the gigantic window at the start of the storm cycle, almost nine months ago, securing it against the often fierce gales that were generated. It was now just past the height of the cycle, and last night it had seemed as if the entire world tremored as the house had cleaved the irregular gusts that were even now seeming to be alive and howling under the roofline.
The hell with it for a few more minutes, he thought, and he reached over and touched the screen of his wristband, temporarily hushing it. As he lay in the empty gloom, he pushed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and futilely tried to resist the thoughts that kept trying to steal his attention. Time was an impatient taskmaster though, and the precious seconds ticked away as sleep continued to elude his grasp. Though his mind was still stuffed with lethargy, the meaningless activities of the coming day fought for more consideration, and won with short, quick thrusts.
I hope I didn’t misjudge the fuel in the lift…I don’t think I did. I better get a couple of cylinders from work just to be safe. They’re bigger, but I should be able to adapt the connectors. He knew the ride to work wasn’t short. If he ran out of hydrogen, it would be hours before the collectors grabbed enough to get back up. It would be just my luck to end up sitting in the middle of nowhere, he thought dourly.
Running out of fuel wasn’t the only issue on his mind. Knowing that today he’d be headed out to the subsolar region, he’d have to spend time around the simulant work crew that did most of the heavy labor. He wouldn’t really have to interact with them – his boss, Harry, would do most of that – but he hated being around them regardless. Trusting them to do even simple tasks could prove to be foolish.
Harry was usually an even tempered guy, but he could be a real pain in the ass when he wanted to get things done. Joss was thinking about the kinds of samples they would need to take, and whether the lousy gas taps would need to be moved, when his alarm buzzed again. Life wasn’t going to go away this time, the smug bitch.
Vaguely angry at being defeated yet again, he reached over and smacked the band, killing its tiny victory dance. He threw back the coverlet, sat up, and put his feet on the cool, textured floor.
In another part of the room, Maré was lying on her thin pallet in the corner. She had just been lost in a dream of Luna, of the comforting smell of her twin’s hair and the happy way it would tickle her nose when she used to bury her face in it in their clamshell bed at night, when she sensed the vibrations emanating from his wristband. She came awake instantly, adrenal glands just starting to pump and filling her with the urge to do something. Despite that pressure, she didn’t move, because she was here with him, and she knew better than to make any noise while the lights were off. Disturbing the peace of the house was very impolite. Worse, it was unacceptable.
He stirred, and the vibralarm ceased. He must have muted it, she thought fearfully. Strange…Normally, he likes to get up right away. Maré silently begged the deaf stars above thatit wasn’t a sign that when he got up he would be sullen and brooding.
Her bladder was an insistent need, but it wasn’t yet an emergency. When he finally rises, I will hurry to the kitchen and get his breakfast around. After that, I should be allowed to use the facilities. It might only be a miniscule measure of control, but planning her steps gave her something to do, and maybe increased the chances that she would avoid a painful confrontation. So many things could go wrong though…
The winds moaned their annoyance outside, causing the old shutters to tick in their frames, and she shivered. Slowly easing her blanket tighter around herself against the cool air that crept along the floor looking for the gaps in her protective shell, she was again glad for it, and her pallet. She had been doing well, and as a reward, he had given her a few of her possessions back. The floor wasn’t very cold, but the hard, textured plastic was particularly uncomfortable without them, making it difficult to get any rest, especially when the wind called to each other in their oblivious voices.
If I can just stay focused on doing my chores well, maybe he will let me have my pillow back. Maybe I can even have some of my clothes, if I am extra good.
She knew that line of thinking was futile, though; one way or another, somehow, she would do something stupid, and he would be forced to teach her a lesson. She would try to focus, but she knew the trouble would come regardless.
The thought of screwing up turned over and over in her mind, and the fear wormed its way into her gut. I’m always making mistakes, dammit. It’s no wonder I have to be corrected so often.
But then she started second guessing the inadequacies he was quick to point out. Relax, Maré, she thought. Get a hold of yourself. You haven’t done anything wrong yet! And Luna would tell you that you can do this! As the image of Luna’s fine hair and smooth, ruddy features came to her, her pulse began to slowly regulate. The grief of their time apart had been so very hard, but she would try to take strength from her missing Chroma; she would have wanted it that way.
Fear, guilt, loneliness and a desperate twist of optimism were still working together to make her sweat when she sensed the alarm again. Maré held her breath for a time measured in a stream of seemingly endless heartbeats. Then she heard him quash the alarm and rise.
As he sat on the edge of the bed, Breylin turned on the light on the low table next to the bed, creating a small pool of light around his feet and dimly illuminating the rest of the room. She scrambled to a respectful position on her knees with her hands clasped on her thighs. Her quick movement seemed like it must have startled him, as if he had forgotten her existence. He recovered quickly though, oriented himself towards her and continued to sit on the brink of the mattress looking at her with eyes made of shiny fragments of graphite. If felt as if he were studying an insect that had crawled onto his arm – right before he crushed it.
Carefully she said, “Good morning, Mr. Breylin.”
“Good morning, Maré,” he replied quietly, and stood up. “Let’s have a good day, shall we?” he called over his shoulder as he walked into the bathroom with his loose lounge pants swishing with each step.
Maré rose. She folded her blanket, rolled up her pallet, and put her things in her cabinet, hoping that the activity would take the chill off of her nakedness. “Did you sleep well, Sir?”
“No… I dunno. Well enough, I suppose.”
“What are your wishes regarding breakfast, Sir? Should Maré make you something?” she called out in what she hoped was a compliant voice. His demand for strict obedience was complete, but sometimes he appeared to take an approving note if she put her heart into it.
“I will take two meal supplements with me.” he replied over the sounds of water sloshing around in the sink.
After opening the shutter on the bathroom window, he leaned on the counter and let the water run to get hot enough to make an angry, moist cloud of steam shoot upward, hazing the mirror above the sink. His morning ritual of obscuring his own face wouldn’t be complete without it.
Today wasn’t a regular day, though; today was one of those rare days where he felt like punishing himself, so he reached over and used the edge of his hand to expose the mirror, leaving behind water beads in narrow, even streaks. He studied his own echo wreathed by the remaining haze. Collar length sandy curls, now darkened with sweat. Even so, it looked a little lighter in spots than normal, and that might be a trick of the sunlight flowing through the bathroom window, but he wondered if maybe a few were more grey than blonde.
He stared deeper. Crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes. Did they always look so pronounced? Or are they heavier? You’re not eighteen anymore, Joss… Bags under the eyes, but that’s not surprising given the lack of decent sleep since the fire…
Spotting the shadow of stubble on his cheeks and jawline, he resolved to use the razors he hated. Thick neck, strong shoulders. Square chest and large arms, a little more fat than they once were, but still heavy with musculature.
All in all, a decent looking guy, though not so good looking as Riss had once thought. He took in the entire reflection… and he hated what he saw.
She padded out to the kitchen and packed the food he wanted into the small, green satchel he carried with him every day. As she was folding its top closed, she regretfully realized that she had forgotten to ask him about coffee. Pestering him was a gamble that gave her pause, but if she did well then maybe he’d reward her. Moving back to stand just outside his bedroom, she could just make out the patter of sprayed water hitting the glass shower door. “What about coffee?” she called out. “You usually want that, Sir.”
“Do you think you should try?” he replied. “I will show you one last time if you need it. I don’t think either one of us wants a repeat incident from the other day – the coffee is too precious.”
Wanting to avoid unpleasant subjects, she considered quickly and made her reply. “Maré will be very careful, Mr. Breylin! She remembers how you showed her you wanted it made!”
She returned to the kitchen and began to get things around. First, she got the kitchen scale out, then the ration canister of coarse, brown powder. Being very careful, she measured out precisely 9.60 grams of the stuff with a tiny spoon. She started to put the container away, but then she began to doubt herself. Had she gotten the weight right? What about the tiny amount of residue that would never make it into the cup? She realized her error, and reopened the canister. But how much would be left in the basket? she wondered. She waffled back and forth for a minute, but she finally ended up settling on 9.62g. She hoped it would be right.
As the water ran down over his hair, Breylin’s thoughts drifted back to his beloved wife, obliterating the trivial ideas of what the day would hold that had been nagging at him. A wave of loneliness washed over him. In a gesture of abject weariness, he rested the back of his head on the white, plastic wall, and the tepid water washed over him. Without realizing it, he slowly beat his fists against the wall behind him. I miss you Larissa, my beloved. Without you I merely exist here…
As he returned to washing himself, he noticed a few strands of his long, blonde hair slip towards the drain and circled around its soap-slick edge. They lost their purchase and plunged in, never to be seen again. He knew it was irrational, but he was envious at their escape.
He shut off the water, stepped out onto the small mat and reached for the large, threadbare towel. Feeling tired and fed up with the daily drudgery, Breylin briefly considered returning to bed as he dried off. The hell with the damn gas taps, Harry, and everything else. Instead, he forced himself to move, completed his ablutions and slowly got dressed in work fatigues. The sooner I get out of this house and away from her, the better.
Ignoring the growing urge to pee, Maré put the reclaimed water into the kettle and set it over the fire on the gas stove. Knowing not to waste the gas, she set the fire to a medium flame.
He came into the kitchen, dragged the chair reserved for him out and sat down. Maré was still fussing with the kettle, but she could sense his mood right away. She fidgeted as she waited, the asymmetrical stone pattern of the floor irritating the bare soles of her feet. Outside of herself, the only sensations in the room were tension and the steady hiss of escaping gas.
Breylin began to tap his index finger on the top of the kitchen table using deliberate, measured strokes. Snick. Snick. Snick. It produced a deafening punctuation in the cramped space, and managed to ratchet the tension a few notches higher. The message was clear to Maré: don’t make me wait. Nervously, she set an empty mug in front of him; it was better than doing nothing.
Finally, the water began to boil. She turned off the gas and took the kettle to the table. Carefully, she poured the water into the mug against the inside, making sure not to splash any. After setting the kettle back on the stove, she waited with hands folded in front of her, covering some of her nakedness.
Breylin stopped tapping and gave her a scathing look as he picked up the cup. With eyes closed, he brought it to his nose and inhaled its aroma. Then he sucked in a tiny sip, rolled it around in his mouth, swallowed. Maré held her breath while he weighed the flavor.
“This is…acceptable, Maré.”
“Thank you, Sir!” she said in a rush of air. She allowed herself to experience a small thrill at the hint of a complement. After a pause she said, “Since Maré did well, may she use the bathroom, Mr. Breylin?”
“I believe I said ‘acceptable’, not well, Maré.” he said, oblivious to her need. “I have changed my mind about breakfast. You may use the toilet after you have heated one of the supplements for me. One only, I will take the other with me when I leave.”
After a brief moment of panic, Maré goaded herself mentally and kicked her actions into gear. She extracted one of the meal packets from the satchel, got a plate from the cupboard, opened the packet and emptied its thick, starchy contents onto the plate. The stew would smell much more palatable when hot, but cold as it was the chunks of congealed fat made it smell a little nauseating. Wasting anything was never acceptable, so she scraped out every morsel with the edge of a knife. She put the plate in the warmer, set the timer to sixty-five seconds and the temperature to medium-warm. Thankfully, the rations came shelf stable and fully cooked – only heating was required.
As Maré waited on the timer, Breylin said, “Let’s go over today’s schedule. It’s nearly 5:45am. You may do as you wish until 6:15 – eat, pee, whatever. After that, do the dishes and clean the kitchen before eight. I want my laundry done and the rest of the place clean before two.”
The timer on the food warmer issued two electronic tones. Careful to avoid touching the stew, Maré picked up the cool-to-the-touch platter by its rim. She turned and set it down in front of him, then got a clean fork from the utensil drawer and set it beside the plate.
“After two I want you to exercise for an hour. Aerobic exercises, I don’t want you getting flabby. Between three and four, disinfect the exerciser, then wash yourself. Clean, Maré. And remove all of your body hair – I want you clean and smooth as glass. Do you understand my wishes?”
“Maré understands, sir,” she said quietly.
“Good, my things must be well in order. Anything else is unacceptable, right?”
“Yes, sir.” She hesitated, but decided to see if suggesting the coffee had paid off. “Do you think Maré might be allowed to keep her hair on top?”
“Okay, Maré, call it a treat.” He held up the mug between them. “For the coffee.”
He picked up his fork, scooped up a bunch of the stew, and shoveled it in to his mouth. He chewed a bit, slowed, and then put the fork down. He swallowed with a wince, as if he was trying to choke down raw sewage. He said, “it’s cold, Maré. The food.” He paused, then continued quietly. “The food you just put down here in front of me, is cold. How am I supposed to eat this?” He pushed the plate away from himself.
Shock shot through her, and a small, terrified portion of her mind gibbered with mindless horror. What just happened? Shit, I was doing so well! She had to say something into the awful silence that followed, offer some explanation, but time thickened and froze around them.
Her heart rate doubled and pounded with the force of the wind storm outside, and she nearly collapsed with the blood rushing through her cardiovascular system, black and silver flecks sparkling at the edges of her vision. She wanted to bolt, run somewhere, anywhere but there was nowhere to go and her feet remained welded in place. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Breylin! I don’t know how —”
From where he was sitting, Breylin backhanded her, hard enough to stagger her into the counter top by the sink, leaving the red imprint of his hand large on the side of her face. The legs of the chair barked along the floor as he stood. Two quick steps, and he was looming over her. Maré nearly reacted by throwing her hands up to protect her face, but doing that always made the beatings worse.
“No, Maré.” His face was close to hers as he leaned in. She could smell the stew on his breath mixed with the antiseptic wash he had used earlier. “Words like that are for people. You’re not people, are you Maré?” he said terribly.
“No, Sir…” she said cringingly. The tears streamed down her face and dripped down onto the tops of her bare breasts.
He took her by the chin and turned her face up to his, their noses inches apart, but she kept her eyes averted and down. Direct eye contact could provoke a savage beating.
“You know what I want,” he said as his fingers flexed and tightened on her chin. “Look me in the eyes and tell me, Maré.”
She couldn’t move except to tremble in his too-near presence. The blows would rain down on her any moment now.
“Look at me!”
She flinched at the outburst, but dreadfully she complied.
The level of his voice diminished to a menacing whisper as he let her go. “Now I want to hear you say it.”
Anxiety had a tight grip on her chest, but she had no choice but to obey. Looking at him she timidly said, “I’m not a person, Sir.”
“That’s right, Maré, you’re not a person. Why won’t you listen? You’ve had to learn this lesson a few times, haven’t you?” She started to respond but he laid his index finger over her mouth. “Shhh…There’s nothing more to say.”
He let her feel the fear and his breath for thirty seconds. The silence was broken only by her near-silent crying and the wind that ached to shiver the house to synthetic splinters. This is it, her mind told her as she screwed her eyes shut tight. She knotted her hands together so taut her knuckles were as white as bone, but her mind was racing, terrified, whimpering. Any second now – the fists, kicking, pain, humiliation, the whip, something, something, SOMETHING, HE’S GOING TO –
Silence. Sixty seconds.
She used the last tendon of courage to look into his dead lucid eyes, losing sense of everything else but the pressure building between them.
Unexpectedly, he stood up and smiled. Gently patting her cheek he said, “I’m feeling generous, Maré. Let’s forget this happened. After all, your birthday is only a month away. I’ll have to come up with something special for it.”
Terrified at the thought of his special surprises, Maré began to sob, and the pressure finally gave way. Her bladder muscles buckled, she urinated down her legs, and a small pool collected beneath her, warming her toes and arches. The rest of her froze with crushing fear.
Breylin took a step back and whispered, “now look at what you’ve done.”