“You’re a damned idiot,” said a familiar voice. “Seven lashes were more than enough and you struck too deep. Now, he’s out of commission for at least a month. What use is he now, eh? I’ll be paying for his upkeep and getting no work out of him.” Arekan placed the complaining voice as Etharin as he came to consciousness face down in a bunk not his own.
“I’m tired of his attitude. He won’t do a damn thing I tell him.” Grokin said belligerently.
“And what about you, eh? You disobeyed my order. Should I give you ten lashes, eh?”
Arekan thought that was a great idea. He’d love to see Grokin get a slice of his own treatment.
“Sorry, sir,” said Grokin. He didn’t sound penitent but Etharin didn’t seem eager to prove a point.
“You damn well better be sorry,” said Etharin. “We are short men as and he is a good blade. We’d be the ones spaced if it wasn’t for him.”
“Aye, sir,” said Grokin. His voice was rough with reluctant agreement.
“When will he wake, you think?”
“Not sure. The men let Issy overdose him.”
“Well, at least we’ll have that working for us. Make sure he gets regular doses.”
“Aye, sir,” said Grokin. “But Captain, what Issy has only goes so far. The men are in a bad way because it’s all going to the blade. I only have the one, Captain. You sold her babies and we have no mate for ‘er.”
In these last words were spoken plaintively and Arekan thought he heard Grokin’s voice shake.
“Like I’d have a ship full of those damn things on my boat. Each man would be useless on their spit.”
“It’s not spit,” complained Grokin.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s the holy venom of whatever god you worship, you godless git. Make sure the blade stays out of pain and let that back heal. And don’t you dare screw that up. I’ve got money on how long it will take for him to get back to work, and don’t you be sabotaging that.”
“Aye, sir,” grumbled the first mate.
“But we’ll stop by that planet your beast comes from and see if we can get another one.”
“A male?” said Grokin hopefully.
“Whatever we can get, you ass. It will be hard enough to get an out of that bug-infested hole with impies after us, without stopping to see the scenery.”
“Aye, Captain,” said Grokin dejectedly.
Footsteps leading to the door signaled the captain’s departure, but another set announced an arrival.
“How’s he doing?” said Egren.
“What do you care?”
“I will check his stitches.”
Stitches? Arekan thought. He got actual stitches instead of his skin being repaired in the medbay? His back would be a mass of hideous scars.
“Aye, they’re clean enough,” said Grokin.
“Move aside,” said Egren. Arekan heard the rustle of fabric. He didn’t realize he was covered with a sheet. Actually, he couldn’t feel a thing, either the touch of fabric or of a hand, which worried him.
“That’s an ugly mess,” said Egren.
“Shut up, you,” snarled Grokin. “I’m first mate on this tub. Don’t question me.”
“The only reason you are first mate is I don’t want the job,” growled Egren. “The boy didn’t deserve the beating he got.”
“If we weren’t alone—”
“You’d what? Look, you steroid-stuffed, muscle-bound piece of half-conscious trash, I can pound you into the decking, and you know it. So stop making empty threats. When is he going to be conscious?”
“He’s in and out. But Issy is keeping him quiet.”
“That beast is the only mercy on this damnable ship. But I don’t envy him what comes later.”
“Don’t you worry about that. Get back to work.”
Arekan wondered about “what comes later,” because right now things were looking bleak. His mouth was dry and his stomach felt painfully hollow.
“Water,” he tried to say, but all he felt was his mouth twitching.
“He’s conscious, you damned fool. Have you been shorting him his pain relief?”
“The blade’s still deep in.”
Egren cursed and Arekan heard rustling and the sound of running water. He felt a wet cloth at his mouth.
“Suck on that if you can, Thad,” said Egren. “The venom of Grokin’s beast is holding back the pain, but it’s slowed down all your other functions. We can’t feed you or give you drink until you come out of it. Sorry. But if we bring you out of it, you’ll be hurting like blazes. You might not be able to take it.”
Arekan attempted a nod, but he was still couldn’t move.
“Ach,” said Grokin. “He can blink his eyes.”
“Thad,” said Egren. “Do you want to continue with the pain medicine? Blink once for yes. Twice for no.”
Arekan wasn’t sure he could blink. But he knew he didn’t want that snake to sink its fangs in him again. Just the thought of that made him queasy. His gut clenched, and he felt whatever remained in his belly roll and twist. He was going to retch.
It was a good thing he lay on his stomach, and his head was pointing down through a hole in the table. Burning liquid bubbled through his esophagus and splattered on the floor.
“Aye, there’s your answer,” said Grokin. “He can’t take any more without killing him. And the captain doesn’t want him killed.”
“You are just thinking about your own need, you sorry sot.”
“My whip is still thirsty,” growled Grokin. “Want to give ‘er a drink?”
“Bastard,” muttered Egren. “Okay, Thad. Things might get rough for you. The med bay is offline, and no one can fix it. So we’re doing this the hard way. I’ve stitched up the worst of the cuts, but I’ve had to let others scab.”
Arekan wanted to know why Egren was acting as medic. Maybe Grokin didn’t know more than operating the barometric chamber he stuck Arekan in after they inducted him into the Heavenly Court. Either way he couldn’t say he was grateful. Grokin gave him the lashes that put him in this misery, and Egren walked away and let him.
Their boots hit the decking as they left the cabin. Arekan was left alone, in an out of consciousness on the table paralyzed for a measure of time he could not count. His nausea grew worse even though his stomach was empty. He dry heaved at regular intervals, and he experienced the curious and uncomfortable feeling of insects crawling on his skin. Then his back shot flickers of pain through his body. It manifested first a dull ache and then morphed into shooting agony as the hours passed by. He could twitch his fingers, and his toes, but any movement made his thundering headache worse.
He would kill Grokin. Arekan may have said it, but now in his bones he knew it. For the first time in his life hate filled him so totally he couldn’t consider Grokin’s future death as murder. It was a public service.
If he lived to kill the first mate that was. At this moment, Arekan doubted he could survive this torture.
The long hours stretched with Arekan drifting into blessed sleep only to wrenched out of it by some pain, or itch he couldn’t get touch, or a dry heave. He shivered in the cold, dark room which only made things worse.
The hatch to the compartment opened again.
“It’s me, boy,” said Egren. “Just checking on you.”
“Jack you,” croaked Arekan. He couldn’t believe he could finally voice his thoughts.
“Aye. And you have a right to feel that way. This boat is hard and why we end up spacing more dead bodies than returning to port live ones. But Grokin said it. You’ve got a will to survive. You’ll come through this.”
“That snake. Its venom,” rasped Arekan.
“Yes. The most addictive substance known. That’s why it is banned from the Four Nations, and why its planet is strictly quarantined.”
“Can anyone?” started Arekan too exhausted to continue.
“Recover? Well, that’s what we are finding out here. The best literature says that there is a one in four chance of recovery from the first envenomation. Repeated exposures? The victim dies without injections. That’s how Etharin and Grokin keep crew on the ship. They make sure they are all addicted. Just the pain of withdrawal sends them crawling back to Issy.”
Arekan tried to swallow, but he had no spit to do so. But it was chilling hearing this.
Grokin deserved to die.
“But you, Thad, I don’t know what it is about you, but I think you’ll put through. Just if you do, don’t let that thing near you again. There isn’t second chances with it. And I swear, it likes having humans under its thrall. I think it is more intelligent than we give it credit for.”
“You don’t,” started Arekan and then collapsed into a dry heave.
“Sound like a crewman?” said Egren completing his thought. “Yeah, well. Most likely you won’t remember this conversation. I’ve brought you a little help now you’ve been through most of it. Don’t worry. It’s a non-addictive substance that will help you sleep.”
A flash of fire in his newly sensitized skin followed Arekan in falling into a dark chasm.
Arekan faced Alteun who was slashing at him furiously with his blade. His swords master never pushed him so hard. It was if he was trying to kill him.
“Fight,” yelled Alteun. “Fight, gods damn, you.”
Arekan fended of Alteun’s attack but he had no wish to hurt Master Alteun.
Searing pain ripped through his left arm just then, and Arekan knew Alteun’s blade sliced him. Anger surged through him and adrenaline, and Arekan for an instant didn’t see his swords master but a man trying to hurt or even kill him.
Breathing hard against the pain, Arekan pressed an attack on the man facing him, using every movement, every turn of muscle and bone that Alteun taught him. At that moment, his lessons fell into place, and coalesced into a coherent whole. He saw the swordsman’s faults in form, and weakness in strategy. He pressed forward with his advantages of speed and strength, gifts of his youth, and soon Alteun fell backwards to his rump, his face beading in sweat. But he broke out in a grin just the same, and laughed, which stopped Arekan in mid stroke.
“What are you laughing at, old man?” said Arekan. He was full of piss and vinegar now, and didn’t care how impolite he sounded.
“Hah! Takes a little blood and pain to bring out your passion, eh?”
“Shut up,” snapped Arekan.
In a micro-second Alteun was on his feet and shoving Arekan into a bulkhead. His hands crushed into Arekan’s windpipe causing the teen to gasp.
“Never, ever underestimate an opponent, Arekan,” he said angrily. “Each opponent has the manner of your death at hand. It is for you to figure out theirs before they can execute yours.”
Arekan woke with a start at the sound of boots on the metal decking.
“Up, boy,” said Grokin roughly.
Hands went under his armpits and a beefy set grabbed his ankles pulling him up as his back screamed in agony. If he had the strength to struggle, he would have, but he was a weak as a newborn kitten.
“Jack off,” said Arekan through cracked lips.
But the words didn’t come out. Grokin shoved a bottle in his mouth and squeezed releasing a gush of water.
“You need water and food, you thankless git. Get him to the table, men.”
Obon and Egren dragged Arekan to a slab that stuck out from the bulkhead and dumped him in a chair it. He bit back a groan as his injured back hit the back rest of the seat. As his eyes focused he found he was in the sickbay. It was a sad little compartment filled with dirty equipment,
Grokin dropped a plate of goo on front of him.
“Eat that. Nutrient paste. And drink what water you can.” Grokin turned to walk away.
“Gee, thanks,” said Arekan sarcastically.
Grokin whirled back to Arekan. “You still got sass in ‘ya. Well, that won’t last long. When you start craving Issy, you’ll be a lot nicer to me.”
“Take that reptilian horror of yours and stick her where the sun don’t shine. But,I imagine you’d like that, wouldn’t you.”
Grokin lifted his hand to backhand Arekan, but Egren pulled him back and whispered in his ear.
“Then you take care of him, you whiny sot,” he snapped. Grokin walked out of the Sick Bay grumbling with Obon following him.
“What did you say to him,” asked Arekan.
“Just eat your food, boy,” said Egren gruffly. “Get your strength up. Your vacation is over.”
Image by Starry Night Graphix