by Ash Kingery
MY SENSES come back to me in a jumble.

Touch—I’m lying against a metal table, its chill seeping into my bones. There’s pressure against my wrists, elbows, stomach, knees, and ankles. I wiggle my wrist. I’m clamped to the table.

Hearing—there’s the soft hiss of escaping gas behind my head while a machine beeps in time with my pounding heartbeat.

Smell—the reek of preservatives breaks through the sterile sting of an operating room.

Taste—the familiar, metallic tang of blood overwhelms me. When I poke my tongue around, I feel a gap in my teeth. I just got one replaced.

Finally, sight—I open my eyes, only to be assaulted by the light positioned directly over my head. When my eyes adjust, I see a human in his late thirties. He has light brown skin and a mop of curly dark green hair with black roots. A nasty scar carves straight down from where his left eye should be and connects to his lip, resulting in a permanent sneer. He has a fresh bruise on his nose. He smiles at me, and his scar tugs on his face in an unsettling way. ‘Miss me?’ he says.

I sigh. ‘Doctor Lystros. So nice to see you again.’

‘Indeed, my friend. Now, on to the old song and dance.’ He produces a scalpel from his pocket with a lazy flourish. ‘I ask you questions. You inevitably refuse to answer, because you’re a stubborn asshole. I remove your organs until you comply.’

‘Take whatever you want, just leave my liver. I spent six months’ salary to replace the one you took last time. Thanks a lot for that,’ I say.

‘I don’t enjoy this, you know,’ he says. ‘It’d be so much easier for both of us if you just coughed up the information.’ The smile on his face indicates he does, in fact, enjoy this.

‘Have you considered that I keep my mouth shut because what I do is none of your or your employer’s goddamn business?’ I say, smiling coldly at him. I’m stalling for time, and it’s completely obvious. But he’s as talkative as I am, loath as he is to admit it, and I need every second I can get to think of a way to escape. Wherever I am, I know it’s not my ship or home base. I don’t keep operating tables around. ‘By the way, what have you been doing with all the organs you’ve taken from me over the years?’

‘Research,’ Lystros says casually. ‘But it’s always preferable to have a living subject. You know that as well as I do.’ As he speaks, he traces the scalpel lightly across my chest, trying to decide what to cut first.
‘Enough stalling. First question. What is your business in the Karelhoff sector, a known restricted zone?’

My suit. He didn’t take off my suit. Now why is that? I look at the bruise. Perhaps I managed to give it to him before I went under and woke up before he could strip me. Now I have the beginnings of a plan. It’s half-baked at best, but what else is new?

‘Eat shit,’ I reply.

His smile widens. ‘If you insist.’ He taps my right hip with his scalpel, then slashes through my suit and skin like they’re tissue paper. I grit my teeth and try so hard not to scream as he peels back the incision with one ungloved hand. Then he sticks the scalpel into the incision, and my plan briefly goes out the window as I pass out.

When I wake (again), I hear a splat and sit up as much as I can to see him placing something in a jar of preservatives. ‘I decided to hold off on taking your liver. You have two kidneys, right? This should be no big deal.’

‘No, I have zero. Did you forget our meeting from a few years ago?’ I croak out. ‘I figured I’d be fine with only one.’ The plan comes back to me in fits and starts, along with the rest of my consciousness. It can still work. It has to work. Unfortunately, for it to work, I need him to shank me again.

Lystros approaches the table, blood soaked and unfazed. ‘I hope you didn’t need to use the lavatory, then. Let’s try this again. What. Is. Your business. In Karelhoff?’ He enunciates very carefully, like he’s talking to an exceptionally stupid pet and thinking that will make it understand it’s not supposed to piss on the floor.

My hands are shaking uncontrollably. My hands are essential to this plan. I just need to draw things out until I can control my hands. That means I’ll have to talk, much as I don’t want to. I take a deep breath and say, ‘I have business there. A meeting that I’ve surely missed by now, thanks to you.’

Lystros narrows his eye. I hear metal parts click and clack inside his head, his mecha brain at work. ‘It seems you are telling the truth. What a nice turn of events. Are you getting soft as you age? Crumbling easily under pressure?’


He chuckles. ‘Next question: Who were you meeting with?’

My blood on his scalpel gleams unpleasantly in the light, but my hands are steadying. I’m almost ready. ‘I was there to make a deal with a representative from the Forian Empire,’ I say.

More click clacking from inside Lystros’ skull. ‘Very well. What is the purpose of this deal, and who are you affiliated with?’

‘None of your fucking business.’

‘Your loss,’ Lystros says. He taps my torso, where my new liver is, and makes another swift, vicious incision. This time, I do scream; it bursts through my clenched teeth, a high, thin sound. ‘You’re making this far harder on yourself than it needs to be,’ he says. Then he sticks the scalpel into the cut, and I take my chance.

I flip my right hand over and press a button on my glove’s palm with my thumb. The wires embedded in my suit surge with electricity and race up the scalpel into his brain. Lystros screams in agony and falls back, hitting his head on the wall for good measure.

A good saboteur’s bodysuit has many surprises. I’m grateful for the money I’ve put into it over the years. The electricity was enough to overload the table’s locking mechanism, as I’d hoped and prayed, and the restraints open with a thunk. Oh, the electricity also hurt like hell, racing through my unshielded body like that, but it hurt Lystros and his mecha brain more. I push myself off the table, rip the scalpel out of my side, and crouch next to Lystros. Pain burns through my open wounds; my head spins as more blood drips onto the pristine metal floor. I pat him down, hoping he’s got something of use on him to fix the gashes he’s cut into me.

Sure enough, he’s carrying a small bottle of liquid skin. I shake it and apply it to the incisions. That won’t fix the deeper problems, but there’ll be time to get those all fixed once I escape. The new skin is raw and red and it burns where it touches my old skin. ‘Thanks, friend,’ I say as I stick the bottle in one of my pockets.
Just because I’m feeling spiteful, I wiggle him out of his white coat. I check his pulse. He’s unconscious–for now. I can’t even hear his mecha brain working. I put the coat on and look around for anything else I can take before I get the hell out of here. There’s nothing else of use (to me) in his pockets.

On a shelf, I spot a bottle of water (which I reluctantly avoid drinking, considering I’m dangerously lacking in kidneys) and a familiar grey cylinder. Holy shit. Even in the unknown reaches of the galaxy, there’s duct tape. I grab it and limp out of the operating room, making sure to lock the door behind me. The door panel is in Vexilian, which I can only understand a little bit of. That doesn’t exactly put a spring in my step.

The ship is weirdly quiet. I pull out some of the duct tape and affix it to the slashes in my suit (self-repair was the one thing I never got around to splurging on), and the sound of the tape stretching echoes. Eventually, I reach what I assume is the main deck. It’s empty. Thankfully, the autopilot switch is on.

I activate the small computer embedded into my suit via the panel on my left forearm. The screen flickers violently; the unshielded electric surge must have toasted the computer a little. Still, it does what I need it to, if at its own pace. A small jack spits out from the wrist, and I pull out the cord tucked into the arm. I plug the jack into a socket on the ship’s control panel, then type a few commands into my suit computer.

The ship’s holographic display comes to life. Again, it’s all in Vexilian. I type more commands into my suit’s computer, hoping to force translate the ship’s language to Terran B so I can even fly the damn thing. It’s going to take a while, but I don’t have a choice.

Where is everyone?

The deck is a mess. I see blue bloodstains, holes in the walls, chunks of flooring, all the signs of a pitched battle. Across the room, I see an old style blaster. I unspool as much of the cord as I can and creep towards the blaster. The cord goes taut. I drop to the floor and stretch out my leg like the galaxy’s worst dancer, straining so hard I’m afraid the new skin will rip open.

Just as I touch the blaster with the tip of my toe, I hear a guttural growl. ‘You…’ Before I can pull the blaster to me, something tackles me to the floor, and the cord rips out of my suit. Pain explodes in my side, keeping me rooted to the ground. Lystros holds me down with shaking arms as he slavers like a mad dog. There are streaks of dried blood on his ears and nose, and he’s twitching erratically. He’s stronger than I remembered.

‘Someone didn’t reboot all the way,’ I gasp as I try to free myself.

‘F-F-F-Fuck you,’ he says, sounding strangely robotic. His breath could curdle milk, and I’m not enjoying the full face treatment.

I summon all my strength and kick him off. We run in opposite directions; no longer bound by my cord, I grab the blaster and race for the other deck entrance, while he runs to a control panel. He’s closer to the panel than I am to the entrance, and I run head first into the door right as it seals. My nose cracks loudly and gushes blood. I nearly black out again, but I can feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins and keeping me on my feet. I whirl around and point the clunky blaster at Lystros. ‘Let me out, or I’ll kill you.’

Lystros is… laughing? He lurches towards me, one step at a time. ‘Then do it,’ he says.

I don’t pull the trigger.

He takes another difficult step forward. ‘W-What’s wrrrrrrong? Too much of a c-c-coward?’

I want to kill him. I think. I definitely want to get out of here, and if I have to go through him, so be it. But I also want to know why I’m here. And unfortunately, Lystros is the only one who can tell me that. One hand over my bloody nose, I walk up to him and press the blaster to his temple. ‘Tell me where we are and why I’m here. If you do that, I’ll let you live.’

‘And the-the-the ship? Can you rrrrread Vexilian? I cannnnn.’ He taps his temple, and I can hear his brain grinding. ‘Give me the innnformation I want, an-and I’ll take y-you back to your ship. We’ll n-n-never see each other again.’

I can feel another plan forming. My first plan worked well enough, in that it got me off the operating table. Let’s see if my luck holds. ‘Fine.’ I gesture with the blaster to the deck, and he shambles over to the controls like a zombie. I make sure to stand behind him with the blaster at the ready. ‘First question. Who captains this ship?’

‘I do. B-By way of Lieutenant General Roy Valley-y-y, formerly of the S-Solar Alliance,’ Lystros says as his brain clunks loudly. He taps the holographic display a few times, and I feel the ship’s engines spinning up.
‘He g-gave it to me in exchange for my s-services. Now, let’sssss take t-turns. I’ll try a-again. Who are you working for?’ It sounds like his voice is starting to go back to normal along with the rest of his brain, and I’m especially grateful for that, because the robotic echo was really starting to freak me out. Still, that means I have to be on even higher alert for any of his shit.

‘Right now, the Savona family,’ I say, not hiding my disdain for him. ‘Second question: Why would someone from the Solar Alliance give a ship to the Butcher of Ganymede?’

‘The S-Savonas? Naughty, naughty,’ Lystros says with a laugh as he slides his finger up, causing the ship to accelerate. I struggle not to fall down. ‘I said formerly. Valley… h-has his own plans, let’s just say. Now, what do the Savonas n-need from the Forian Empire?’

My hand is getting tired from holding the blaster to his head, and as the adrenaline fades, the pain returns. ‘Doctor Tamar O’Shaughnessy. The Savonas think she’s working for the Empire, and they need her bio design skills. Don’t know why. I’m just the one they called to find her, by any means necessary.’

Lystros’ hands fall to his sides, and he turns around slowly. He beams like a child surrounded by birthday presents. ‘Oh, now the-this got interesting.’

‘I hate it when you say that word, and I especially hate it when you smile. Talk.’

‘We’re taking turns,’ he says, smoothly now. ‘Why do you work for the Savonas, despite knowing very well who they are? I remember when we parted ways ten years ago. You seemed to think you were too good for my line of work, and now you’re working for them?’

‘This is different.’

‘Not really. The Savonas and I are two sides of the same coin. You haven’t changed. You’ve just gone over to the side with better publicity.’

‘Where is Doctor O’Shaughnessy?’ I say, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him close. That was way too sudden of an action; pain punches me everywhere for my trouble, and my vision flickers.

Lystros looks me up and down. ‘The coat suits you.’

I don’t even think. I just shoot him in the leg. He crumples to the floor in silent shock, hands over his instantly cauterized wound. I crouch down, press the blaster to his forehead, and say, ‘Where. Is. She?’

He pushes through the pain enough to smile again. ‘Dead. I was in a lab on Vanth a couple years ago. I had an alias and a disguise; to her, I was nothing but an eager research assistant. She discovered ryselic acid there, extracted it from the plant life. When I saw what it could do, I just had to have it for myself. Somehow, Valley heard about me and asked me to join him. He spread the rumour about O’Shaughnessy. Good to know that it worked, even on the Savonas.’

Rage boils in my throat. ‘You always find a way to fuck up my plans,’ I spit. I type a command into my suit computer, and it spits out a cranial jack. ‘You know what this is?’ I say.

‘Look at you. I’d say you’ve stooped to new lows, but this is more of a display of your true colours.’ Lystros coughs. ‘Neither of us is doing too well. You’re missing a vital organ, I have a hole in my leg. You can kill me and hack my brain for the information on ryselic acid, but then you’ll never get home. If you hack me while I’m alive, I’ll just resist you till I die.’ He shrugs. ‘The Savonas can make do with me. And you’ll get your payment. I’ll even put your kidney back in. Let’s work together again, like old times.’

I hate it when he’s right. I hate myself for listening to him. I lower the blaster a bit. ‘What does ryselic acid do?’ I say.

‘It makes people… let’s call it pliable. With it, the Savonas will be able to take the entire Terran criminal underworld for themselves and keep it.’

‘What about Valley’s whole quest, whatever the fuck that is? You’d just drop that?’ I say.

‘Oh, him? He’s off on some silly tangent about conquering alien worlds. Do I look like I care? He let me play with my toys and protected me while I did, that’s the only reason I stuck with him.’ Lystros smirks, then sighs and drops the smug look. ‘I’m an opportunist. So are you. That’s why we got along so well. But mostly, we just tried to kill each other, so we might as well both get what we want. You’ll get your money, and I get to use ryselic acid. I don’t give a damn about who has it, so long as I’m in charge.’

My entire body hurts like hell. I’m extremely aware of my missing organ. The adrenaline has dried up. Everything fucking sucks, and I want to get paid and go home. I reluctantly put the blaster down. Lystros opens his hands a little in a welcoming gesture. I heave him to his feet, and we support each other back down the hall to the operating room.

We sit on the operating table next to each other like schoolmates at lunch. In one hand, he holds my kidney in its jar; in the other, he holds the scalpel, and now it’s the coppery stench of my blood that fills my nose. I’m holding the bottle of liquid skin and some bizarre device I’ve never seen; he says that he’ll talk me through using it on his leg. We stare at each other. All I can see is the void where his left eye was.

I’ve put my life in the hands of a butcher. Then again, he’s put his life in the hands of a saboteur. You can’t trust either of us as far as you can throw us. I guess that’s what made us—makes us—perfect for each other, when you look at it from a certain angle.

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