A cacophony of laughter erupted from the center bar as a group of orbital mine workers lifted their beers in unison and slammed steel mugs together. Kimsy stared at them with glee in her eyes and smiled as their drunken joy filled the establishment with life. She wiped the counter with a red cloth as her eyes turned from the men to the koyball game being played on a hologram above them. The Grunsvelt Asteroid Team was doing well this year. It would bring more customers in, she thought.
Then, a hooded man walked in shrouded in a brown cloak. She had noticed him before but he would never order anything. He simply sat down at a table in a corner and watched the bar with keen eyes, never making conversation, never even lifting his hood for a smile. At first, she would avoid him, but every now and again their eyes made short contact.
Another explosion of laughter urged Kimsy from the bar and she made a beeline straight to the stranger.
‘Howdy,’ she said, sitting down across from him. ‘You from around here or just passing through?’
‘Just passing through,’ said the man, she could just barely see his blue eyes.
‘It’s rude to speak to a friend with a hood on you know.’
‘Oh, we’re friends?’
‘Everyone here is friends. No need to be strangers. I’m Kimsy.’
‘Aldrahan,’ he said as he pulled his hood back. She had to keep herself from gasping. The man seemed like a war veteran. The left side of his face was pulled back and melted as if he had been caught in a fire and a cybernetic plate was fixed to his temples. His eyes were blue but augmentic. She supposed most of him would be. Kimsy shook herself just as she realized she was staring.
‘I apologize. I don’t see many people like you here.’
‘I suppose you don’t.’
‘Most of my clientele come from the mining district. Despite it being the smallest district, this place stays busy most of the day.’
She was rambling.
‘You do that a lot.’
Her face went red. She stood up and brushed a few wrinkles from her apron.
‘You wouldn’t have anything to drink would you?’ he asked.
‘This is a bar. It’s pretty much what we have.’
‘I mean a beer for someone like…’ the man hesitated.
‘You don’t have money?’ asked Kimsy, resting her hand on her hip.
‘Haven’t had a job in a while.’
She sighed. ‘I suppose it makes sense.’ Laughter shook the floor and she smiled. ‘You’re lucky I’m in such a good mood today, first one is on the house. After that, if you want more to drink, you’ll have to work for it. Everyone else does.’
The man looked shocked. Kimsy turned around and brought him a half-pint. It would do enough to quench his thirst.
‘You look like you’ve seen some action. What war did you fight in anyway?’ she asked setting the mug down.
‘Only the one that tore us apart.’
Aldrahan’s words seemed to pierce into her. ‘Sit down. You’ll want to pay attention closely. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.’
‘What are you going on about?’ asked Kimsy, suddenly becoming very uncomfortable. Another roar of laughter but it seemed hollow to her ears. She felt chills run up and down her spine. Then, the man brought his hand up and snapped his fingers.
Instantly, the room froze. Kimsy turned around. The men slapping each other’s backs and telling crude jokes were stopped like statues, even the spittle from the edge of their lips as they spoke were suspended in air.
‘What is this?’ asked Kimsy, suddenly standing up, the chair falling to the floor.
‘Please, do not be alarmed. I am your friend and I have come here to set you free.’
She turned around to her security, but even her detail stood frozen.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘Pausing the sim.’
Aldrahan stood up and gave a salute she had never seen before, at least, she thought she didn’t. Something about it was so familiar.
‘I have been practicing what I was going to tell you for years and now it seems my tongue has become slow. Please, allow me,’ he took the beer up in his hands and drank. After a few moments, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gave a long belch. ‘Damn, it’s so convincing I can’t tell the difference between this and real beer.’
Kimsy’s heart began to pound in her ears. The friendly faces she had known were unfocused. The bar family she belonged to were still. No one moved except for her and Aldrahan. The silence was deafening.
‘What the fuck is this?’ she shouted taking steps back from him.
‘No no no there’s no reason to be alarmed. Please allow me to explain what this is.’ He set the empty mug down.
Kimsy took a step back but tripped on a customer’s foot. She fell and must have hit her head because her vision swam and she was on the floor. She could hear her breathing and a loud boom in her ears, almost like an explosion.
‘Shit. I guess we have to do this the hard way,’ said Aldrahan. Then, her vision went black.
Suddenly, she was blinded by a bright flash and she felt like she was being pulled out of a pool of water. When her eyes began to adjust to the hard light, she realized that was precisely what had happened.
Kimsy sat naked in a vat of blue viscous liquid. She had a red collar around her neck and thousands of tiny wires connected to them. All at once, the tubes disconnected themselves and the water she was in began to go down a drain. She choked and lifted herself out of the a pod, coughing and wheezing.
‘What the…’ She realized there was someone standing before her and recognized the face. Aldrahan stood naked before her, blue liquid dripping from his body.
He knelt and held a silver bottle out to her.
‘You should drink this. I promise everything will make sense.’
She touched the bottle.
‘What’s in this?’
‘Just water and electrolytes. You’ve been in there a while.’
‘Let’s dry off first. You need to drink that.’
‘No! I want answers now!’
Aldrahan grabbed a towel beside him and began to dry himself off, rubbing his chiseled chest, well-formed biceps, and shoulder-length brown hair.
‘If you insist. Ugh, there’s so much to cover. What do you want to know first?’ he asked.
‘Where am I?’
‘You’ve been in a rehabilitation simulation. This is a prison satellite and the purpose is, instead of execution or torture, to rehabilitate you despite your crimes. The more evil the crime, the longer the time.’
‘How long was I in there?’
‘Two-hundred years give or take.’
‘Holy shit. What did I do?’
‘Some would call you the Great Scourge, the Terror of a Thousand Planets, the Eater of Worlds and the Serpent Borne of Blood. You led a fleet of a hundred planet crushers murdering untold billions in our final crusade. We know you as Pheingell Bludwuld.’
‘But my name is Kimsy.’
‘I suppose that means the rehabilitation program worked. You were captured nearly two hundred years ago by the House of Kerkieds. I suppose you were lucky in a way. Instead of publicly executing you they sent you to the farthest reaches of the galaxy to this satellite station for rehabilitation.’
Kimsy glanced around her. She saw hundreds of steel pods just like the one she was in. All of them were empty except for one. It seemed like the place had been abandoned for a long time.
‘Commander Orixe and I led the invasion of the Kerkeids and we killed every one of them in revenge. I found where you had been cast away. Once I arrived however, I realized the collar around your neck, if taken off before the program deemed you rehabilitated would crush your neck. I had no way to take it off due to the tech being so outdated. So I had to wait until the program deemed you ready.’
She stood up out of the pod. Aldrahan grabbed a towel and handed it to her.
‘You’ve been here since you found me?’ she asked.
‘Ten years almost. I have been in that simulation waiting ever since.’
A chilling wind blew against her and she saw her reflection in the blue liquid at her feet. Kimsy looked nothing like she knew. She had scars across her face and her hair was and overgrown tangled white mess. She had a deep gash by her mouth that had been stitched badly and healed like an ugly flesh clump.
She drank from the silver bottle Aldrahan gave her. Her brain felt raw as if it had been taken from her head, scrambled, and shoved back in. Kimsy supposed that wasn’t far from the truth.
Memories unfamiliar to her rushed into her mind, a trickle at first, but as she drank from the silver bottle, they seared into her mind like a meteor shower.
‘What happened that the program believed me to be rehabilitated?’ she asked.
‘You had to show empathy and give something without expecting anything in return. The program estimated it would take fifty years to complete. I guess you were always stubborn.’
‘Couldn’t you have just told me?’
‘No. If I did you would be reset into a different simulation with different rehab parameters. You would be stuck in there another two hundred years maybe more.’
Aldrahan handed her a body suit and she slipped into it. She didn’t feel strange having been naked in front of him. In fact, she felt comfortable around him. As if they shared a special kind of relationship before she was captured and forced into the pod. Memories of who he was were beginning to come clear, as if cleaning a foggy mirror.
‘Who are you?’
‘I am the fleet’s leading technomancer. It was thanks to me you are still alive.’
Aldrahan snorted. ‘I never thought those words would ever come out of your mouth. It’s almost like you’re a different person.’
‘I can’t remember who I was before. It’s as if that person was taken from me and ripped to shreds. All I know is my life in that bar.’
‘Come, I want to show you something,’ said Aldrahan as he secured his own black bodysuit.
They walked through the prison satellite. The halls were cold and, despite the self-heating bodysuit, she felt the icy sting of reality. It was as if she had been awoken from a sweet dream she desperately wanted to return to.
Then, he stopped just outside a viewport window. ‘Look.’
Kimsy saw a starship docked to the satellite. It was painted black and red with countless guns and boosters attached. It looked like a formidable battleship. Then, as she stared, she felt a tingling in her hands as she remembered holding the ship’s yoke in a dogfight. Kimsy sighed as her breath escaped her lungs.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Aldrahan.
She fell to her knees gasping for breath. For a moment, she felt her vision blur, but, at his coaching to breathe and calm herself, she came to.
‘I can’t go back.’
‘The more I remember, the more I begin to understand what I hated about being out there. I remember growing up on the streets of Mergent, a whore and pirate. I remember the sleepless nights in the belly of a planet scorcher, the paranoia of being poisoned by my allies or being murdered in my sleep. I remember the feeling of taking lives from orbit and with my bare hands.’
‘You can’t stay here!’
‘I won’t go back.’
‘This is all a lie. Maybe you think you were surrounded by friendly faces but in reality you were all alone. You’ve always been alone and going back there won’t change that.’
‘I was alone, but I was happy. The galaxy has moved on without me for the last two hundred years. It will do just fine without me now.’
‘But the fleet needs you. We have been waiting for you to lead us back to glory—’
‘No one is alive who remembers me anymore.’
‘I remembered you. I’ve stayed by your side for a decade and a lifetime before you were lost. What will I tell Commander Orixe when I return empty handed?’
He turned and his face went red. ‘I haven’t heard that nickname since before you were captured. I couldn’t be sure you remembered. You always had a way of making me blush.’
Kimsy’s face matched his because she in fact didn’t remember. She didn’t even realize she had used that nickname. ‘Tell me something. Were we…a thing?’
‘No. Not really. Despite you using your body to get the better of presidents, region-kings, and other allies, you and I never really…’
She touched his hand. ‘Seems like a sad thing to do. I can’t remember any of that.’
‘It will come in time.’
‘Let me rephrase, I don’t want to remember. You, I do remember. You were only a boy when you entered the captain’s quarters in the middle of my designated R&R, malnourished and with a fever. You were a refugee of some planet we razed and asked to join the fleet. I nearly threw you out the airlock. I almost killed you,’ Kimsy frowned as she relived the bitter memory.
‘But you didn’t. You saw I could be of use to you. I didn’t leave your side then either.’
‘Why not return to that moment when it was just you and me? If you’re scared of what will happen if you return, then don’t go. Stay with me.’
Aldrahan hesitated. ‘I can’t do that. I can’t live a lie.’
‘We would be together. Where is the lie in that?’
He stared out the viewport. ‘If you want to return to the simulation I will help you back, but I will return to the fleet. A major invasion is about to occur, and I will help spear-front the attack. We’re not too late yet.’
Kimsy grit her teeth and shivered despite the warmth of the bodysuit. ‘Please, I cannot return.’
Aldrahan held her shoulders. ‘I will tell them you died out here and there was nothing I could do. I will block this location and erase any knowledge that this place ever existed. No one will ever bother you.’
‘There it is again. It’s so odd hearing a “thank you” coming out of your mouth. I can’t believe that rehab worked.’
Kimsy slipped out of her body suit and stepped into the pod as it began to fill with a clear blue liquid.
‘I suppose this is goodbye for good?’ she asked.
‘See you later. Goodbye is too final. I like to keep my options open.’
‘See you later, then. Will I remember you?’
‘No. You won’t remember a thing,’ he said as the waters poured over her face and the pod slid shut with a hiss. All went black.
Suddenly, the roar of laughter echoed in her ears. Kimsy was in her bar tender clothes holding a mug in her hands and her red rag. The orbital miners cheered as the Grunsvelt Asteroid Team scored another point. She set the mug down and rubbed the back of her neck. It felt raw, as if it was chafed. Now she thought about it, her head ached ever so slightly.
A sense of sadness came over her, but she couldn’t explain why. There was an emptiness to the laughter and cheer of the bar, as if she had lost a friend but couldn’t remember who nor how.
Then, she saw him enter the bar. A stranger in a hood made his way to a corner table and sat down.
‘Today is the day we meet,’ she said to herself, taking a gulp of beer.
She walked to his table and sat down across from him.
‘Howdy,’ she smiled. ‘I’ve seen you a few times before but you never speak to anyone.’
‘I’m still trying to cope with this place. My mind isn’t always easy to make up,’ said the man.
‘My name is Kimsy. You from around here or just passing through?’
The stranger smiled. ‘I’m not from around here, but I am just settling in. This is my home now. You can call me Al.’