Sample Chapters—Golden Skies

9781945654121-resizedforprintChapter 1

Day of Orbit: 154/405

Hour: 12/32

“Seh” 3/9, Day 19/45

Orbit: 50,132

A sharp stab of pain bolted through my shoulder. I winced as my peaceful nap shattered into oblivion. Coughing, I groaned, rubbing my eyes to clear the mound of dust that had covered me during my sleep. Hot sand passionately kissed my face, embracing me like a zealous lover, and thick air clung to me with an incessant, suffocating heat.

Ugh…two continents in the whole world, and I had to end up on this shit stain. I hate the South.

I sat up, sighing, and grimaced as my brown skin cracked under the intense rays of the blistering sun. It took Certamen thirty-two hours to complete a single rotation and harsh sunlight dominated eighteen of them, searing me and everyone else for an excruciating nine days a week. I rubbed my shoulder, eyeing a sharp, gray rock beside me. I frowned. Is that what hit me?

“Napping again, Malik? I understand doing that in college, but you’re sleeping at work now too, you lazy ass? Seriously?”

My eyebrows furrowed as I recognized the voice of a longtime friend. I rolled my eyes and sank back down. “I was just resting my eyes, Kafed. What’s it to you anyway, you sniveling bastard? Were you the one who threw that rock at me?”

“No, the thing just levitated off the ground and hit you by itself.”

“Of course it did.” I raised my hand to shield the sun, squinting up as Kafed edged nearer—he’d always been handsome, his hair long and black, falling to his shoulders, seemingly soft and perfect, and his eyes dark and calculating—perspicacious. A finely groomed mustache and beard adorned his delicate face, along with a silly smile which prompted me to mimic it.

“So, you have a new part-time job kissing sand, huh?” Kafed chuckled at the sight of me strewn about like an idle slouch. His brown tunic fell loosely atop a pair of spotless white pants. On his back hung a gray knapsack, and a pair of elegant leather shoes encased his feet. He was a scholar, and a serious one at that, dressed finely like all university students.

“Yeah. It helps to kill the time; that way I don’t have to be around my father and his lunacy.”

“I feel you there—I heard he cut some idiot’s hands off for stealing a few days ago.” Kafed shook his head, sighing. “You gotta love the just and amazing laws of our little hometown.”

“Oh, for sure.” I rolled my eyes. “But, hey, remember that you’re not above them, scoundrel. Be careful when you’re snooping around and getting parts for all your contraptions, now that you’re back in Atemhop.”

“C’mon, Malik, I’ve never soiled my hands with stealing!”

“The town guards and their guns would disagree.”

Kafed waved his hand. “There’s too many guns in this backwards town as it is. What’s one or two missing in the grand scheme of things? Anyway, what are you selling here at your fine establishment? Do you have any special deals or discounts? The half off, early bird special?”

“Don’t be a cheap whore, Kafed.” I shook my head, ridding my curly hair of sand, rose to my feet, and steadied myself on the wheel of my wooden cart. It was a plain and ugly thing, my cart. Coarse, sandy, and twice as big as a large wheelbarrow.

I glanced inside and surveyed my collection of trinkets—movies, slingshots, beers, cigars, cell phones, and random snacks—catching my reflection in a liquor flask; wide, gray eyes stared back. I frowned. My black hair stuck out in all directions, and my beard looked two shades lighter, for all the dust and sand in it. I swept at it, annoyed, attempting to get myself in order.

“Relax, you’re still very dashing, Malik.”

“Oh, I’m flattered. Thank you. And everything which your entire persona revolves around is for sale. Take a look.”

Kafed chuckled and walked over, stroking his beard. “Give me a slingshot and a cigar.”

I handed the items to him, and he threw a small collection of cash in the cart.

“You seriously shouldn’t be selling this tobacco, though. If the guards catch you, they’d probably give you fifty lashes.”

“Then why are you buying them, you moron?”

“Because I want to get mouth cancer. Besides, I’d probably only get twenty-five lashes if I got caught since I’m your best friend.”

I chuckled. “I doubt it. Since when has my father caught anyone a break?” I glanced around keenly, a habit I had perfected, but didn’t spot the familiar black garb of the town’s guards. In fact, I didn’t spot anyone. We were in a desolate location in the outskirts of town with only a few sandy dwellings nearby. Only desert and old ruins lay beyond that.

“Relax. You chose a fantastic spot to sell, Malik—plenty of people jostling to come by and see you. As for your father, maybe if you hadn’t dropped out of the university, he wouldn’t be on his man period.” Kafed reached into his pocket and pulled out a green lighter. The next moment, he exhaled a sizable puff of smoke, grinning in satisfaction.

“Maybe, but the cretin forced me to change my studies from politics to the new theology of Safad al-Din, our physically incarnate man-god—holy be his ass. Didn’t I tell you about any of this?”

Kafed shook his head. “You withdrew mid-semester and fell off the face of Certamen. You always forget that you have something called a cell phone. Use it next time.” Kafed slapped my shoulder. “But anyway…from what I hear, you’ve been terrorizing the town with your devil worship and heathen ways.”

“Oh, yes.” I scrunched my face in distaste. “The gossip of the idiot townspeople. My father gets pissed at me every time they open their mouths, worried that I’m causing them to ‘soil’ the family name.”

“That’s impossible. You’ve trashed your name so much, it’s started to look a bit pristine.”

“Why, thank you, Kafed. That’s a very gracious compliment.”

“Malik! Malik! There you are! You’re always slinking about and hiding, never answering your phone. It’s impossible to track you down!” A muffled voice met my ears.

I turned, surprised to see Eliza jogging toward me, her long, wavy, brunette hair flying behind her. Purple robes fluttered over her thin body, and a plain scarlet mask hid her face. Only gleaming, violet eyes stared out at me from wide slits, the area around her mouth devoid of any openings. I stiffened beside Kafed, trying to keep my lip from curling in disgust.

I didn’t want my sister to get my distaste misconstrued—it lay, not with her, but with Atemhop’s barbaric laws which always soured my day; women could not go outside without complete facial coverings since Safad viewed them as inherently more sinful. In the man-god’s eyes, the scarlet mask served as a containment mechanism so women’s ‘evil’ couldn’t corrupt men into breaking holy laws. Only women over fifty years of age were exempt.

“Hey, Eliza.” Kafed reluctantly toiled with his cigar.

“Why are you guys selling contraband?” Eliza glared at us. “And why do you both have beards? Father and the guards despise them.”

I leaned against the cart. “Well, they’ll just have to excuse us—our beards are the latest trend of fashion. Besides, the idea that facial hair is ‘spiritually unclean’ is pretty stupid. But yes, Eliza—I’m engaged in the black market since it’s great business. Why are you here? Please tell me you wish to buy.”

“I’d be whipped for doing so. And speaking of that, everyone in the town is being summoned to the square per father’s orders. Atonement is taking place for a few unlucky people.”

“Oh, Atonement. You mean father showing off his brawn. Yeah, go on and have fun without me. Say ‘hi’ to father while you’re at it, and please moon him for me as well.” I turned to my cart and opened a compartment at the top, pulling out a glass water flask. I took a long swig from it, sighing with pleasure as the cool liquid quenched my parched throat.

“Are you thirsty, Eliza?” I held out another flask to my sister. “It’s ridiculous how they make you wear that mask; you could easily suffer from heat stroke.”

My sister paused and looked around, shoulders tense.

“It’s okay, there’s no one who will see.” I placed the water flask in her gentle hands. “Drink before you pass out.”

“Thank you, Malik.” Eliza lifted the bottom portion of her mask. Unscrewing the flask’s top, she drank with haste, gulping the water down in two draughts.

Kafed slapped my back. “C’mon, let’s go to the Atonement and avoid any trouble. I’ll help you with your cart and get it back to your home…wait, why the hell do you have a cart anyway? You don’t even have a motorcycle to pull it.”

“I usually lug it around since it’s a good leg workout; plus, it looks cool. We can leave it here. Nobody will mess with it.”

Kafed nodded slowly. “Very well.”

“But we aren’t going to any backward Atonement punishment nonsense! Let’s go to your house, Kafed. It is always full of fine entertainment.” I walked away from my cart in the direction toward town. Kafed opened his mouth to protest, but then sighed and simply followed.

Eliza walked up to my side, keeping pace. “Malik, Fath—”

“Will be furious, no doubt, but what’s he going to do? Behead me? You can tag along with us, Eliza.”

“But…” She stared at the sand beneath our feet.

I stopped and turned toward her. “Do you really want to witness more of father’s atrocities? Do you want to see more heads roll?”

Eliza shook her head. “I don’t. I don’t even like father…but I don’t want my head to roll.”

“Your own father wouldn’t kill you, would he?” Kafed asked. “I mean…he hasn’t killed Malik off yet, and you’re vastly more desirable than he is.”

Eliza chuckled beneath the scarlet mask. “You have a point…”

“And he finally shows his true colors. Thanks, traitor,” I murmured, walking onward.

Kafed sighed. “I never said you were undesirable.”

As we traversed the strip from my selling place to the town’s suburbs, buildings grew more numerous. The dwellings were mostly uniform, with such subtle differences, one would most certainly get lost if not familiar with the territory. Each lightly colored or white, the homes only varied in accessories such as their large, wooden doors, rich handles, lavish windows or open panels, distinguished by the financial status of the dweller.

Television satellites stood proudly on rooftops along with chairs and tables under small alcoves. A few people lingered on these skyward porches, sipping on tea, or conversing. Elderly folk, mostly…not that they truly looked old. People had the potential to live up to a hundred and forty years, but the violence and poor conditions in the South curtailed that. Most were considered lucky to even see seventy.

I took a right in a nearby alleyway, partially protected from the sun, and relaxed as the oppressive heat died down under the shelter.

“So, have there been any firefights near the university, Kafed? I hear that Uttaca has been launching a few raids into our borders.”

“They’ve certainly been getting more aggressive, but nothing has happened on campus yet. Has Safad ordered your father and his soldiers to go fight them?”

“Not yet; otherwise we’d all breathe a little better without his ridiculous mongrels running around.”

Eliza smacked my shoulder. “Malik, keep your voice down! Don’t you remember the three men who had their tongues ripped out for talking trash about our country’s soldiers?” She poked her head around the corner and scanned the street.

“Oh, yeah, I do, but I don’t particularly care.” My lip curled up in distaste. The man-god Safad-al Din ruled over us with a national holy army. The Eternal Circle’s oppression combined with their callousness formed a band of wild-natured brutes. Even though they claimed that they protected our country and all its citizens, anyone with half a brain could see it was all just a smokescreen put in place by Safad-al Din to blind all of my country to the atrocities the Circle carried out at his whim.

Qashang lay in the upper south of the world’s southern continent, while Uttaca lay below us. Yet, even with constant skirmishers between our two nations, it was painfully apparent to all that Safad and his Circle were only adept at being idiotic tyrants, not guardians.

My own father was a commander and governor of our hometown, and he was no better than the vilest within the Circle. He ruled through Safad’s edict that governors could wield divine authority on his behalf, giving my father the powers of a monarch. My disgust was complete.

Yet, even with the growing resentment for Safad and his Circle, not even the greatest skeptic dared question the government. Safad had reportedly committed dozens of miracles in front of thousands, quickly raising him up to become overlord of Qashang, a leader that ruled an army of religious zealots.

Now accepted as God out of mass fear, Safad’s every law demanded absolute obedience, his holy word requiring reverence and worship in his name in order for mortals to earn their way into the afterlife. Violation of these commandments carried an immediate death sentence and the subsequent destruction of our souls. Supposedly. I cursed them all into oblivion.

I walked out of the alleyway and found myself standing directly across from a two-story sandstone home. A fine, dark wooden door with a golden handlebar made up the principal entrance, and diagonally-placed sandstones arched the gateway and bore down on a light blue keystone at the apex. Fashionable and appealing. White, florid curtains covered the windows of the abode, and on its roof sat a pair of tables and chairs under a brilliant sun-protector that stood out from all the other houses. Lime green, of exquisite canvas. Kafed came from a family of good constitution.

Kafed’s shoulders relaxed, and he strode forward to his front door and unlocked it with a silver key. Refreshing, cold air rushed onto us as we walked in. I closed the door behind me and locked it, following my sister and best friend through a small hallway into an expansive living room with aqua-green walls. Kafed threw himself onto a nearby golden couch and sighed in pleasure. I made my way to a comfy chair and sank into it, enjoying the soft embrace of the cushions while Eliza sat at a table close by, her hands fumbling nervously.

“Relax, Eliza. If father whines like the bitch he is, I’ll say that I forced you to come along.”

“I don’t know if that’ll be a good enough excuse…but you know what? Whatever. Screw this town, and screw father and the stupid Circle!” Eliza seized the scarlet mask on her face and ripped it off, slamming it onto the floor. She took a deep breath and rubbed the heavy streams of perspiration off her elegant face, tension visibly leaving her shoulders as she sighed and closed her eyes.

“I wish you didn’t have to wear that hideous mask in public. It hides how amazingly beautiful you are.” Kafed’s admiration was apparent, if the expression encompassing his face was anything to go by.

Eliza smiled, her face growing a light pink. “Thank you. I wish so, too.”

“I am so damn sick of that stupid rule.” I gritted my teeth. “I have half a mind to put on one of those hideous masks and take a shit in front of the guards to piss them off.”

“Please don’t.” Eliza frowned. “There’s only so much patience father has for you. You’d probably be hung at the city square.”

Kafed got up from his couch and went to a nearby wooden wardrobe. He pulled out a drawer and stored his cigar there, killing the embers on an ashtray inside.

“Don’t like smoking inside the house?” I pursed my lips.

“I forgot to put it out earlier. My mother hates it.”

“Kafed, why do you have that slingshot in your hand?” Eliza furrowed her brow.

“Well, I bought it so I could peg Malik with pebbles in the future, but most likely I’ll use it on my newest project.”

“Project, what project?” Her curious eyes focused on the simple weapon in his hand.

“Kafed, my dear sister, is an inventor. Why do you think he decided to study something useful at the university like engineering and the hard sciences?”

“I thought the University of Tanwir was mostly for those wanting to become magistrates, priests, and the like?”

Kafed turned back and walked behind the couch; he pushed it aside. “Not entirely. The Circle needs experts to fix their war machines, and many people do go there to acquire the skills to serve them, but not me.”

Eliza’s face paled. “Please tell me you aren’t planning to do anything stupid. And why are you behind the couch?”

“Well, to show you my project, of course. Why else, woman? Malik has already seen it in its very early stage, but I never told him what it was. I’m almost done.” Kafed reached down and pulled upward with a grunt.

Eliza rose to her feet. “I hope this doesn’t get you killed.”

He shrugged. “Malik is more likely to get killed than me at this point.”

I laughed. “Yep, that’s why I’ve even drafted my farewell. It’s mostly addressed to you though, Kafed.”

Eliza glared at me. “What, am I not worthy enough to be included?”

“Ehm. No.”

Kafed chuckled and disappeared as if swallowed by the floor. Eliza shook her head at me and strode around the couch. Surprise flitted across her face, and she tentatively followed my best friend. I rose from my chair and did likewise. A trap door lay open, revealing a wooden ladder descending into a sparsely-lit basement. I quickly climbed down, the rungs creaking beneath my weight.

What in the world are you building?” Eliza’s voice echoed from below.

I dropped down the last couple of feet and turned around, my eyes adjusting to the darkness of the room. A large table sat at the far end of the basement with an assembly of metal parts strewn across it. Deconstructed rifles, automobile parts, and mechanical equipment sat clustered all around us. Off to one side, a box held a small collection of rockets and other military gear. My eyes widened. This doesn’t bode well…

“Kafed, you aren’t planning to join the Eternal Circle, are you? Thinking of maybe blowing up some Uttacan soldiers in some great act of patriotism?”

Kafed turned away from his fumbling. “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m an atheist. I doubt Safad is even divine, so there’s no reason to die fighting for him. No, I’ve started building something else.” He held up a compact, metal box with two jutting, rocket-like apparatuses on the sides.

“What is it?” Eliza stepped closer to get a better look.

“Well, I’ve named this invention the Wings of Heaven, and I plan to fly away from this horrible-ass town with these very wings.”

“You mean that jetpack?” I asked.

“I’m offended, Malik. I wouldn’t plagiarize or steal ideas like you, you scab. No, not me. You see, anything as mundane as a jetpack would carry the risk of me tanning my backside. These are Wings of Heaven—WOHs for short. The difference between this and a jetpack is the fuel and propulsion. What I have developed is something that even the northeastern continent nations don’t have.”

I edged closer, intrigued. “What did you develop?”

“A new form of Aversion technology.”

I paused, blinking. “What in the blazes does that mean?”

“Precisely what it sounds like. The knowledge I’ve gained at the university has engraved itself within my brain—it feels as if I have a storm brewing inside my head. I’ve been developing this little project during my travels for months. It’s almost done.”

I inspected the contraption closely, and things fit seamlessly. My esteem rose at my friend’s craftsmanship, imagination, and how he’d married the two to create such a unique invention.

Eliza reached out to touch it with a finger.

“You guys can come with me, of course. I can make two more.”

“You can’t be serious.” I laughed, but I was secretly intrigued by his comment.

Kafed smiled. “I am, and together, the three of us shall forge our own futures away from this horrendous place.”

“Where would we go?” Eliza took the machine in her trembling hands, her gaze riveted to it.

Kafed’s grin widened. “To the Northeast across the sea, of course. All of Certamen is up for grabs! The planet is free and vast—”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

We all looked at one another with wide eyes. Trouble.

Kafed reacted first—taking the machine from Eliza and placing it on the table gently, then dashing up the rungs from the basement. Eliza and I followed, rushing into the living room as Kafed closed the hatch door, and moved the couch back into place. I leapt over furniture and sank down in my chair. Eliza moved over to the table.

The banging on the front door rattled the sconces on the wall. “Open up, in Safad’s holy name!” a voice screamed.

“I’m coming. I was in the bathroom!” Kafed shouted, walking briskly toward the front door.

Suddenly, loud gunshots pierced the air, and the door flew backward to land in front of Kafed, creating a resounding boom! Two men in black uniforms marched over the door, assault rifles in their arms, leveling their weapons at Kafed’s head.

I rose to my feet. “Calm yourselves! We’re no threat!” My heart jolted inside my chest as my desperate words tore from my throat. In the house of another, it was the first time I thought I might not be immune from the Eternal Circle.

The men lowered their weapons at my plea, recognition dawning in their eyes. As they brushed past Kafed, a wall of bullet-proof vests, supply belts, explosives, cartridges, and side arms charged in my direction and slammed me into a nearby wall, holding me against it. Faces covered by black half-masks with painted white fangs made me flinch away. The colors had the divine authority to destroy the lives of lawbreakers. Dark eyes glared up at my towering stature. Though I stood taller and bigger than most men, I dared not resist—these soldiers were trained killers, and I couldn’t match them in a fight.

“Well, if it isn’t Mujadin’s own son, the infamous cretin, Malik. We were tasked to retrieve you and your sister, and aren’t we the lucky ones to find you.”

Kafed coughed at the lingering dust created when the door slammed down to the tile floor. The Circle’s warriors turned. “Oh, we almost forgot; he counts as a bonus! The governor will be pleased that we will be returning with three hoodlums instead of two.”

One soldier reached out, grabbed my shirt, and pulled me close. “This is the last time you’ll disobey your father’s orders.” A sickening stench emanated from his mouth. I recoiled away. He chuckled and pushed me to the center of the room, toward the doorway.

I glared at the two soldiers, pausing only a moment to carefully choose my words. “Eat me, sluts.”

Pain bolted across my face as the hard metal of the assault rifle met my face, and I careened off, landing on the floor hard. Strong arms pulled me up and pushed me forward, the muzzle of an assault rifle pressed into my back.

“You two, walk in front of Mujadin’s son!”

Kafed paced toward the front door, and Eliza followed. She shot a terrified glance at me, her chin quivering. She moved a hand toward her face.

“Your mask!” one of the guards shouted. “Place it on! You blaspheme Safad’s holy name, stupid bitch! Women cannot go outside without cover!”

She scurried over to the wooden table and retrieved her scarlet mask, tying the back strings so it stayed fixed in place. She practically ran back to stand near Kafed, her body shaking.

“Move, boy.” The soldiers shoved me again, and we began marching forward.

My heart raced as they escorted us out of Kafed’s house and onto the street. This wasn’t the first time I had defied my father’s orders, but it was the only instance I had pulled others into my fiasco. I’ll take any blame in full. I won’t let others pay for my foolishness. Father should honor that, at least.

The three of us were prodded forward, taken through the graveled streets of the town, past shops, offices, alleyways, and plazas. A roar rose up ahead, amplified by the deserted buildings around us, acting like an echoing megaphone.

“Keep it moving!” We stumbled underneath the soldiers’ guns and turned left onto another street, the town square coming into eyesight along with the city’s spiraling town hall.

It was here that haphazard gravel gave way to seamless concrete with small, intersecting pieces, professionally laid. Closer to the center of the square, the pattern became clear and uniform, and at the true apex of it all, a gray platform loomed high over the heads of thousands of people.

I trembled, unable to tear my eyes away from the blood-stained platform, painted entirely red over the course of years by the severed limbs of dead men, women, and children. I’d been forced to watch as a small boy myself. Forced to hear pleas and cries from the violators of Safad’s moral laws on adultery, promiscuity, theft, and blasphemy. I looked on it and gritted my teeth, black animosity surging through my veins as I beheld Mujadin, my father, governor of Atemhop, standing proudly in front of his expansive audience.

He stood tall, the same as me, both of us six-feet, four inches. A royal-blue scarf adorned his neck, a symbol of his close connection to Safad, and his calculating, dark eyes bore into those unlucky enough to catch his gaze. A scar marked his right cheek, a wound sustained from the shrapnel explosion of a hand grenade, which complimented the hideous black dress uniform he wore.

As my father turned, the diagonal stripe of white on his clothes gleamed under the sun’s light—the emblem of his holy authority to kill. Mujadin motioned for the crowd to look upon the decapitated heads of a dozen people lying before them, a grin of pure delight etched on his face. The sight turned my stomach.

His cruel smile prompted a flurry of terrible memories to invade my mind. My mother crying while being beaten like an animal, again and again. The God-given right of men, outlined by Safad. Heads rolling, having been severed by my father’s own hands, and the screams of my sister being smacked like a dog, verbally ground down until she found the darkest corner to hide in. Threats against me to keep in line with Safad’s will, followed by whippings administered to others for speaking out against injustice. All Mujadin’s doing.

My body shuddered as I remembered my grandfather speaking out against the insanity that had possessed my father’s mind, how his hateful devotion to Safad had destroyed him. Moments later, my father had stood over him with a bloody sword in hand, smiling as my grandfather’s body bled out on the floor. The same smile slithered across his contemptuous face now. My chest heaved, my hands shook, and a terrible storm of revulsion screamed from within my chest, rancorous and ferocious and violent.

Dozens of armed soldiers stood near my father and around the platform, guarding the ritual-taking place. Others stood on nearby rooftops, scanning the crowd and square. At my father’s feet three sinners awaited punishment—two women and one man, on their knees, weeping. They wore scarlet robes, the mark of sin, judged by the Circle.

The guards pushed me from behind, lurching me forward. Additional soldiers spotted my group and made their way toward us. The people in the crowd backed away, and soon an opening formed that allowed us direct passage to the platform. Perspiration slipped down my face, and I wiped my hands on my shirt as we were escorted through the makeshift corridor.

Eliza glanced back at me, her violet eyes watery. “Malik…”

“You let me do all the talking, Eliza. Not a shred of blame will be placed on you or Kafed.”

Kafed shook his head, incredulous. “Are you insane? He is likely to have you flogged to death for missing the Atonement!”

“Just do as I say!” I growled.

People on either side of us gave wary glances, whispering amongst themselves. Some recognized me as Mujadin’s son. Those that knew me wore sympathetic faces, for they knew I was nothing like the monster on that platform. I stared straight ahead. From our vantage point, it seemed as if we were on the other side of the world, yet my father’s stage towered straight above us in mere seconds. Guards delivered us to a concrete stairwell. Kafed and Eliza were forced to climb up first and were taken off to the side, close to my father. My father’s men pushed me toward the steps.

I turned back fiercely to the soldier behind me but came face to face with five assault rifles. I turned away and stormed up the steps, my body tense as a snake ready to spring, and stepped directly in front of my father.

Mujadin surveyed me keenly, his black eyes narrowed and calculating. He shook his head. “Your insolence never ceases to astound me, boy.”

“Your barbarity likewise.”

Vibrant pain bolted across my face as his fist connected, the force from the blow causing me to swing back and meet the concrete ground. I gritted my teeth, unsurprised. I expected nothing less from such a base man.

“You stupid ass! How dare you insult me? Have the fiends of this desert possessed you? Defiant, blasphemous child!”

My hands clenched. “But I’m no murderer, and I’m no savage, you pious moro—”

Mujadin struck my face again and seized me by the shirt, my eyes blurring with tears. “I do everything for Safad! In his name! Carrying out executions to lawbreakers is sanctified and holy. You will understand this, Malik. You will see his graceful light and be purified!”

I shoved him back with surprising strength, no doubt fueled by the adrenaline rushing through me. “What are you talking about?”

This wasn’t the first Atonement I’d missed. Why was I up here?

My confusion seemed to give Mujadin joy, and a nasty smile turned up the corner of his mouth. He turned to our mass of spectators. “Behold, the callous son! Possessed by selfishness and greed and hatred for everything that our Divine One, Safad, declares is moral and just! We have tolerated it long enough. Today, Malik will make a profession of faith and be cleansed of his evil by executing all of these fornicators at our feet! He will show devotion to Safad!”

The roar from the crowd rang in my ears with a deafening silence as my mouth dropped. They’re forced to applaud this. I shut the cheers away, trembling. The two women and man looked up at me with tear-stained faces, lying sprawled on the floor. This wasn’t happening. This had to be some sort of nightmare. I had missed countless Atonements since returning from the university. I had committed far worse crimes against the man-god worshipped here! Why here? Why now?

Mujadin turned to me. “Your blind manners have shown just how far you’ve gone past the edge of reason. Always defiant to divinity. First, after you left the university and refused to become a priest for Safad, and now with our rituals and laws. I am ashamed to call you my son! This has gone on long enough! You will kill them, and you will do it now!”

My father drew a horrible sword, the sound of it scraping out of the metal sheath sending shivers down my spine. It was curved and sickening, dark as night and death. He thrust it out to me sideways, holding it by the middle. I looked at the dreadful blade, and my face grew cold, leaving me weak and faint.

I then contemplated something that made time come to a standstill. I could end all of this savagery with one blow. I could take the sword in my hands and plunge it into my father’s heart. I thought of my grandfather lying in a puddle of blood. I thought of my mother’s screams. My sister’s.

Mujadin beamed. “I see your hatred, your disgust. Kill the animals beneath your feet! Do it now, Malik!”

I slowly took the blade in my hands, my heart hammering. I looked down to the man and women at my feet. They whimpered and began to scream.

“Have mercy!” wailed one of the women.

I clenched my hand tightly over the sword’s hilt and closed my eyes. Turmoil cut at my insides. I let out a shriek, the loudest one I could muster. And I stabbed at my father, leaping forward, wind howling.

An iron wall. Mujadin stopped the blade dead in its tracks, clenching it at the center with one hand, eyes wide. He scowled as blood trickled from his cut palm down onto the concrete floor.

“I’ve been trained by the best assassins in the world. You think a little fuck like you can kill me?”

A savage kick sent me stumbling back, and thousands of voices shouted. Guards swarmed behind me and locked my arms to my sides with their strength. Mujadin glared at me, furious. He shook his head in disbelief and threw the sword at my feet, walking over to grab Eliza by the hair.

“I hear your dear sister has taken after you,” my father said, his voice quiet. “Perhaps she can atone for your sins; Safad allows it—women are inferior! They can act as a sacrifice in a man’s place at my discretion.” He threw Eliza on the ground and kicked her savagely.

Eliza cried out, sobbing.

“Silence, whore. Your brother has ruined you. He’s ruined everything.” Mujadin screamed. He pulled out a short dagger and grabbed her by the hair again, bringing the knife to her throat. He looked to me. “So, do you want her to pay for your sins, Malik? Or will you stop this mad defiance and serve Safad to redeem yourself?”

“Let her go!” I shrieked, attempting to leap forward. I doubled over in pain as the guards holding me struck me in the gut. Tears of anguish brimmed at my eyes. “I…won’t serve anyone!” I spat on the ground, screaming. “Safad isn’t a god! He’s nothing!”

The guards holding me suddenly let go, taken aback. Silence rang forth from the crowd and rapidly descended upon the entire square.

Mujadin looked at me, speechless.

“Safad isn’t holy! He’s a man who pisses and shits like everyone else. His laws are hogwash. You kill for nothing! You are nothing! You’re a liar, scum, a deceiver. All your life fighting for some sick charlatan!” I yelled, feeling blood rush to my face, popping out the veins on my throat and forehead.

I didn’t truly know if I believed what I was saying, but Kafed had echoed my own thoughts on the subject countless times; he believed that Safad wasn’t divine—that he’d tricked others with his ‘miracles’ to gain power and keep it. Everything that was happening was because of that narcissistic, deceiving man-god my father worshipped.

No one in the crowd moved or spoke. The soldiers around me leveled their weapons at my head. The penalty for denying Safad’s divinity was death. I tightened my fists. If this was to end in a hail of bullets, at least I’d diverted attention from those about to be executed, my sister, and Kafed.

Mujadin put up a trembling hand, ordering the men to hold their fire. A deadly whisper. “No. No. He will suffer.”

A short, quiet pause rang forth, then suddenly, I lost control of my body and fell to the concrete ground, pain exploding from every nerve. I’d been struck by stun weapons.

My vision blurred, light entering my pupils in bursts. For one second I saw my father’s stony face, the next the feet of guards, the crowd staring at me, the sea-green sky, my sister weeping on the ground, Kafed flanked by guards.

Soldiers grabbed each of my arms and hoisted me to my knees. Time seemed to slow as I got my bearings, blinking at the crowd, then the air was sliced in two, the sound of a whip whistling before it hit its mark.

Tongues of fire lit up my back, pulling a heinous scream from my throat. My muscles tightened like knots, fresh air eating away at my raw flesh. Red engulfed my vision, and the air thundered and rippled. Wapash! My forearms tensed, and I cried out, trembling. The flames returned again and again, one lash after the other, ceaseless. The sky darkened, and the blistering heat disappeared. My flesh shredded apart in lines, pulled off my muscles in crisscrossing patterns, my blood flowing out, dripping onto the stone. The leather gouged deep into me with each lick. I could hardly breathe.

My tear-filled eyes stared blankly to those below the platform and rested upon a man below me, just one of the many among thousands. White skin. Blond hair. A Northeasterner? My eyes widened at the woman beside him—fiery red locks flared out behind a scarlet mask. Piercing blue eyes drank me in. I expected hostility from them but found shock instead. Sympathy. Conflict within these foreigners. And then they were gone, replaced by black. A last shuddering breath, another crack, and darkness took me.

#

Day of Orbit: 154/405

Hour: 20/32

“Seh” 3/9, Day 19/45

Orbit: 50,132

My body burned in an unquenchable fire. I coughed, my throat dry. I opened my eyes with difficulty, the lids littered with sand and blood and spit. The cool, wet concrete I lay upon soothed my bare body, and a heavy mist fell steadily onto my heated skin—the sprinklers had been turned on to wash away the sinners’ blood. Night loomed above me, only partly illuminated by a nearby street lamp and the rays of Certamen’s half-crescent violet moon.

I stared at a lonely ray that hit the gray ground beneath me. I was unbound, and when I shifted slightly, I knew why; the pain in my ruptured back stopped me—consumed me utterly. I groaned and lay still, my ragged breathing breaking the harmonious cadence of the water falling around me. I focused on taking deep breaths, trying desperately to escape my world of agony. In and out. In and out. Still alive. Why?

A sudden whisper. “Malik? Malik? Please…you can’t be…” A small sob echoed nearby. Eliza.

I tried to speak—to alleviate my sister of her worry—but my barren and parched throat couldn’t utter a single sound. I forced my mouth open to drink in the water falling around me. Small droplets flew inside, beads of magic. Graceful. A small puddle had formed next to me. I drank it, lapping it up like a dog and closed my eyes, basking in its life-saving qualities. I moaned softly, resting my face on the concrete.

I cracked my eyes open to find Eliza heaving herself up onto the platform. She rolled on its surface and rose to her feet, wet, but not dismayed in the least. She walked toward me, moving hesitantly. Though dark, I could make out streams of tears upon her cheeks; she wore no mask.

“Malik…answer me, please!”

I coughed and finally managed to croak, “I couldn’t before…”

Eliza exhaled sharply and sank to her knees beside me. She hugged my head close to her, her shoulders shaking.

A melancholy sentiment washed over me; I wanted to reach out and embrace my sister, to console her, but my body wasn’t mine to command anymore. “I’m sorry. I did this. Don’t weep for me.”

“No. Father did this. I hate him. I ha—”

“Eliza…what happened after I was punished?”

“They dismissed the town and executed the adulterers. Kafed is fine, just a little banged up. Malik, why? Why did you do it?”

I paused. “Because. Without the ‘Divine One,’ father wouldn’t have an excuse to murder. Without Safad, the Eternal Circle wouldn’t be able to poison the minds of others.”

“Father would murder anyway, so would the Circle, just in the name of something else. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Eliza clutched me desperately.

“How touching. Your sister’s fidelity. Misplaced, but nevertheless, to be admired.”

My skin crawled as I heard Mujadin’s voice above me. Eliza gasped and held my head tighter.

“Leave, Eliza. Now,” commanded my father, his voice quiet and menacing.

Eliza rose to her feet, shaking. “No! You won’t hurt him. I won’t let you!”

A sharp crack met my ears, and my sister crumpled to the ground, unconscious. A rush of fury engulfed me, but I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even crawl; invisible chains of pain bound me to the floor, my muscles still weak after being electrocuted. Marching and splashing of several pairs of boots approached, then abruptly stopped. Eliza’s limp body left the ground as the Circle’s soldiers hoisted her on their shoulders.

“Take her back to her mother at my house. It is time she learned her place just as my wife did long ago.” Disdain dripped from Mujadin’s words. The soldiers voiced a sharp acknowledgement and left, their boots thudding away into the distance.

Mujadin paced over me. A boot slid underneath my stomach and rolled me over. I cried out, breathing hard as my raw back grinded against the concrete—it was as if dozens of knives had stabbed into me at once. I lay on my back, gulping for air. Mujadin loomed above me, impassive. He wore black robes and a large hood, the sprinkler-water slipping off it and streaking down his thick clothes. He stared at me, observing me closely, disgust bringing his upper lip into a sneer.

“I suppose you believe that you will die now?”

“I’m not afraid of you or your little sword, old man.”

Mujadin chuckled humorlessly. “Idiot. That attitude will be beaten out of you.” He knelt beside me. “You see, Malik. I will be as merciful as Safad can be to the ignorant and misguided. Especially to my own son. You will follow his light. You will become his holy warrior, the same as me. You do believe in him, even if you deny it.”

I chortled, the image of me in black robes and a fanged half-mask appearing utterly stupid. My laugh broke into a fit of coughing. I cleared my throat, putting a hand on my chest. “I hate Safad, the ‘Divine One,’ with everything I have, just as I hate you. Just as grandfather hated you. Traitorous bitch.”

Rage streaked across my father’s features. He looked as if he would smash my head into the concrete below me, as if he would splinter me into a million pieces. Yet, he bridled the anger, wrestled it down to a smolder, the conflict evident on his face.

“Can’t you see that I’m trying to save you? Your grandfather worshipped that despicable, false god, Leiol. He was a fool!”

“Grandfather was noble. And you killed him! He said you went crazy with this new man-worshipping religion.”

“Silence!” Mujadin gripped my shoulders. “Safad liberated me! I was no one, and he made me something holy, something pure. Accept him so you can save your own soul and finally see the truth!”

I shook my head. “No, Father…he made you into a monster. Look at the people you’ve killed, all the families you’ve tortured and torn apart. You’re nothing but hate. You killed your own blood. You destroy and you maim; that’s all you do.”

Mujadin grabbed my long hair and pulled me up, his teeth grinding so loudly that the sound sent a sick shiver down my spine. I groaned, pain coursing through me once again as my back rubbed on the concrete.

Your grandfather deserved it. Everyone you speak of deserved it, Malik.”

“The only thing that deserves death is that wretched, fake man-god of yours.”

Mujadin snarled, and his restraint vanished, swept away like the water falling upon the platform. My whole world flew downward once again as Mujadin smashed my skull into the concrete. I lay in agony, my surroundings vibrating and shifting around me, and closed my eyes, trying to escape the intolerable suffering.

“Load him into the transport and give him a sedative. Commence his purification soon, and let me know when it is complete.”

“At once, sir!”

An army of boots thundered toward me. Rough hands grabbed me and threw me onto a stretcher. One soldier approached with a needle. My eyes danced wildly, and I tried to reach out just as my arms were bound to the stretcher.

The soldier looked at me wordlessly and grabbed my forearm. I cursed at him and spat in his face, but he wiped it off, eyes empty. He jabbed the needle harder, injecting the sedative into my bloodstream. My vision darkened slowly and became blurred. Your grandfather deserved it. Mujadin’s words echoed through me, haunting me. The present faded into nothing.

 

Chapter 2

Day of Orbit: 267/405

Hour: 11/32

“Panj” 3/9, Day 42/45

Orbit: 50,123

I sat upon a brown bench in the city square underneath a beaming sun. Its warm rays caressed me, falling upon a gray platform towering nearby, hideous and stark. No one knew its purpose. The Eternal Circle had commenced its construction two weeks prior, proclaiming it was Safad’s divine will. My grandfather, Genrid, sat beside me—a clean-shaven man with short, gray hair and a friendly demeanor. He was a kind man. A fatherly man, more so than my real father of late. Genrid carried a thin book in his hands—bright gold in the outer binding—the holy word of Leiol. He peered down at it with reverence, careful in its handling.

“What are we doing here, Grandfather?” I kicked my little legs as they swung from the bench, my feet a dozen inches from touching the ground. At ten years old, I barely reached people’s chests.

Genrid smiled. “Relaxing, Malik; can’t you see? One must appreciate life. Cherish every second of it, for it is a gift from Leiol.”

“Yes, Grandfather.” Dozens of people shopped at various stores or sat outside, eating. Children ran about, playing games, some begging their parents to buy them toys or sweets. Other people lounged, conversing and smoking.

Genrid smiled. “We’ll get ice cream soon.” My grandfather flipped a page in his book. “I was just reading this passage…Leiol speaks about how mortals must treat each other with kindness and respect in order for there to be justice in the world. What matters most is one’s deeds, that their light outweighs their darkness. When we die, Leiol judges us and determines whether he’ll allow us into a new, blissful world of peace or have us reborn on Certamen until we redeem ourselves. So remember, my boy, being good is what’s important, nothing else.”

“Grandfather…is my father good?”

Genrid paused. “No, Malik. But he could be… if he would just open his eyes and see that Safad is a man, and that instead, only Leiol is truly divine. The new religion has changed him.” Genrid sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. “When he journeyed to the capital a year ago, he did so to find a job to provide for you and your mother. It’s there that he encountered Safad and his ‘miracles.’ And now, with Safad’s influence having reached our city, I fear he’ll never break free of his chains to this imposter.”

“But…why was he bad before he met Safad? Why did he hit Mother sometimes?”

“Because some men are bitter and lost, and they cast their own pain onto others. Don’t let that happen to you, Malik. You should be loving and noble—you should ease suffering, not cause it. Don’t commit wrongdoings, or you’ll be ashamed of yourself when you face Leiol for judgment.”

Heavy footsteps echoed as leather boots struck the concrete ground. My eyes widened as two dozen men in black garb and fanged half-masks marched into the square, holding assault rifles in their arms. I shivered; the holy soldiers of Safad, the Eternal Circle were here. They protected Safad’s government officials who’d set themselves up in the town hall a month ago to survey the town.

“I want to be a good man, Grandfather. I want to be like you.”

Genrid squeezed my shoulder. “You already are.”

Everyone froze as the Circle’s soldiers stood with guns clutched in their hands. Parents grabbed their children, eyes fearful. At the head of the group walked my father. A white stripe adorned his black shirt and a black scabbard hung at his waist. He stood tall and proud. I looked at him in awe. Safad’s government officials liked my father. They said he was important. Mujadin’s eyes fell upon me and my grandfather, his face growing scarlet.

“You would seriously do this, Genrid? Sit out here in the middle of Safad’s town, worshipping a false, old god? My own father, breaking Safad’s divine rules and committing blasphemy?”

Genrid closed his book and set it down on the bench. He stood in a huff, his face serious. “What rules, Mujadin? I have been governor of Atemhop for years; I still am. You think your black-garbed ruffians scare me? Leave here before I call the police.”

“The police?” My father spat on the ground. “They’re sitting at home. I ordered them to. This country is ruled by Safad now, and he has chosen me to lead Atemhop. You have no power here. You are nothing but an infidel…and you’re under arrest.”

Parents with children hurriedly left the square or hid inside the shops.

The corner of Grandfather’s mouth crept up as dozens of adults wearing golden clothes stood from chairs and walked closer. A dreadful silence hung in the air, caked in fear and resolve. Mujadin turned, eyeing everyone. The Eternal Circle’s soldiers clenched their assault rifles, faces fierce.

“You organized this little posse to break the law with you, Genrid?” bellowed Mujadin.

Genrid stepped forward. “I organized nothing.” My grandfather thrust a finger out. “You’re nothing but poison. You were a broken, sinful man before you left to the capital, and nothing has changed since then. You think I don’t know about the people you’ve murdered? You think my townspeople don’t know? You’re nothing but a killer and a bigot. Some wretched tool for this fake man-god of yours to grind us all down, and you will face judgment one day. Mark my words.”

Mujadin gritted his teeth.

Genrid approached Mujadin until he was mere inches from his face. “We will not be dictated to by a zealous fool. We reject Safad. We reject his new government. We reject you.”

Mujadin snarled and turned away, his shoulders tense. Everyone waited, breathless. The Eternal Circle’s soldiers looked to their commander.

“I’ve tried so hard to get the damn people in this town to see the truth, that your old god is false and that the only true leader for this world is Safad. I’ve done everything to tell you that the way you live is disgusting and selfish—that every prayer uttered to another god keeps Safad’s blessings from falling upon us.” Mujadin’s hands shook, the growl in his voice echoed throughout the square. “There must be precedence for your crimes.”

Mujadin threw a hand up.

Crackling thunder pierced the air as all of the soldiers’ weapons discharged at once. I screamed, clutching my ears. People in gleaming golden robes flew back, then slumped over, blood splattering over the concrete. Shrieks rang forth from the innocent men and women running for cover, yet the Circle’s soldiers followed, mowing them down. The townspeople collapsed in heaps as they fled and windows shattered, shards of concrete bursting into the air. Mujadin turned to a gaping Genrid. He drew a black sword from a scabbard at his waist.

My grandfather’s eyes bulged as he stood before my father. “How could you? You would kill innocents…in front of your own son?”

Mujadin’s eyes fell upon me.

I sat on the bench, shaking. “Daddy?”

“Your grandfather is an infidel, Malik. And like all infidels, he will die.”

“Daddy!”

“Close your eyes, Malik!” screamed Genrid.

The sound of flesh ripping tore at my heart, and I cracked my eyes open. Half a sword jutted from my grandfather’s back, dripping in blood. Mujadin stared at Genrid, a hideous smile slowly growing upon his face. Genrid’s hands touched Mujadin’s cheeks, and my grandfather collapsed on the ground. Mujadin followed him down, keeping the sword in. Genrid’s mouth opened and closed, his eyes distant. I couldn’t look away; my whole body trembled.

Mujadin stared at me, his voice quiet. “Come here, Malik.”

Tears welled up, clouding my vision. “No!”

“Come here, now!”

I turned to flee but ran into a black-robed soldier flashing painted white fangs. Strong hands seized me and picked me up. The next moment, I was thrown in front of my father. Concrete scraped my knees, pain shrieking from the torn skin. I sobbed.

Mujadin stood, leaving the sword within Genrid. “Pull the blade from your grandfather’s chest.”

I shook my head, standing. “No!” Tears streamed down my cheeks.

Genrid groaned, shivering.

Pain suddenly exploded across my face as my father hit me.

“Do as you’re told, Malik!”

“No!” My scream resounded across the square.

His fist pummeled me again, and I fell. Mujadin seized me under the armpits and pulled me up. He turned me around like a rag doll. “Pull the sword out now.”

I breathed heavily, trying to get his hands off me. He was too strong.

Mujadin gripped my forearms and moved my hands to the hilt of the sword. I thrashed violently, trying to escape. I fell limp and kicked out, strained, my whole body racking with sobs.

Mujadin gouged his hands into me, digging into my skin. I cried out. A nasty whisper met me. “Pull the sword…or I’ll ram it through you, too.”

I screamed for help, looking to the sky.

A fist pummeled my side. I struggled to breathe. Mujadin again seized my fingers and forced them to grip the hilt. The blade squeaked against my grandfather’s serrated skin as my father held tight, pulling the sword out slowly with my hands gripped beneath his.

The sword clattered as it hit the ground. I shuddered, my vision completely clouded with tears; I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t tear my gaze away from the blood. It pooled everywhere, sweeping across the concrete like a hideous red sea. It ran around my black shoes, engulfing my father’s, too, and filling the air with a metallic scent. Blood, so much blood.

#

Day of Orbit: 154/405

Hour: 30/32

“Seh” 3/9, Day 19/45

Orbit: 50,132

I inhaled sharply, my eyes fluttering open. The nightmare shattered into pieces, falling around me like sand in the wind.

“Oof!” My body flew off the ground, wrenched by a tremendous force, and I looked around, bewildered, the world spinning, my heart jolting. Searing pain washed over my back and my muscles seized up, rendering them useless.

Chains cut into my flesh where I had been hoisted by the wrists and left dangling, suspended in air with no relief from the gravity that pulled at my shredded body. I groaned and hung limply, kicking my feet in a vain effort to find a surface. My arms and body were bare except for a loose, white cloth tied haphazardly around my pelvis. I hung from the ceiling in a small, sandstone room. It was plain and unremarkable with a simple wooden door at the end. I coughed and spat blood onto the floor, my throat parched.

Fingers snapped. “Here, here, fool! I tell you, the prisoners delivered here are getting feebler-minded by the batch.” A gruff, cacophonous voice met my ears. Spiteful chuckles followed.

Three men stood before me. Two wore sand-colored linen shirts and had clean-shaven faces. Crusted and compassionless, they stared at me, coarse and unexceptional. I frowned, noticing they had no weapons in their hands or strapped to their bodies. These sorry-looking fools don’t look like guards. Why are they here? My attention turned to the third man. His dark gray hair set off fierce, hazel eyes. Of the men in the room, only his physique spoke of power, and with brawny, thick muscles and clean, white robes, he appeared to be in some sort of position above the other men.

He grinned and spat onto the floor. “Good morning, mutt. We came to say hello and make sure you were breathing.”

“What?” I whispered hoarsely.

“We’ll see you again soon.” The gray-haired man winked, signaled to his companions, and opened the wooden door to a long, dark hallway. The two others followed promptly, slamming it shut on the way out.

I looked after them stupidly, my situation failing to register in my mind. I winced in discomfort as the weight of my body burdened my shoulders and glanced around again. I scanned the room in more depth but couldn’t find anything of note; it lacked even a window and was mundane to its basest foundation. A nasty, ancient bulb lurked above me, casting the room in gloomy shadows and illuminating gray, unwashed floors, dirty and disgusting. Lackluster. No furniture or chairs or tables. Nothing.

Shaking my head to dispel my disorientation, I searched my mind to recall what had happened in the square. You will become his holy warrior, the same as me. Confusion clouded my mind at my father’s words. This wasn’t how the Circle’s soldiers or recruits were treated. Did my father lie? Why was I tied up like this?

Then I remembered that the gray-haired man had called me a prisoner. The blood drained from my face. I had to be in Sempoi, the infamous holding center for enemies of the state. A hundred and thirty miles from my hometown, deep into the desert rather than on the fringe. But why? As a blasphemer…I shouldn’t even be alive. This was certainly not a training camp.

No answer came. I simply hung in the air, waiting. What didn’t fail to arrive was dreadful fatigue and a slow, grinding pain in my armpits. It felt as if I were slowly being pulled apart, as if my arms were going to give way eventually and separate from my body. I exhaled slowly and tried to pull myself up.

I cried out, my scream ringing around the small room. My back! I marveled at how any small movement relied so principally on the muscles located there. Any twitch caused excruciating pain. Yet, the agony was inescapable as the mere act of hanging itself stretched the torn skin on my shoulder blades.

And it got worse. Time trickled by, the pain doing likewise as if it were a growing sand pile in an hourglass. I gritted my teeth, sweat causing a seizure of pain as it licked at the split flesh on my lower back. The archaic room had quickly grown hot and stuffy.

I closed my eyes. Will they kill me here? Images of better times flickered through my memory. Sitting on the rooftop of Kafed’s home, smoking a cigar with him. Talking under starlit nights. Sweet youth with the excitement of women and greatness and potential. I had never been as brilliant as my best friend, but I’d been a worthy intellectual acquaintance.

I thought of his new invention. Aversion technology—a new type of propulsion to power his jetpack. I wondered if it was anything like the energy shields the Northeastern engineers had developed. They could only block a certain amount of bullets before losing power, but they were very effective while that power lasted.

A wave of pain rippled through my back, and I groaned. It is time that she learned her place. Worry surged through me as Mujadin’s threat from the platform echoed in my mind. Eliza. I grew cold at the thought of what consequences lay ahead for my sister. Under the holy rules established by Safad, a man had the right to do with his wife and offspring as he wished. That’s why my mother had never left my father. She would’ve been executed at the platform by his wretched, black sword if she’d tried.

The door to my chamber flew open, wrenching me from my thoughts, and an older man walked in. White facial hair covered his face. Royal blue cloth was wrapped tightly around the top of his head, and in his hands, he carried a wooden stool along with a thick book. Kind eyes met me with a warm smile—a priest of the Eternal Circle, the rank established seven years ago when Safad codified his laws and philosophy during the first years of his rule. My father had wanted me to join them—that was why he sent me to the university in the first place; Safad’s priests acted as judges in the bigger cities of our country.

“Well, hello, my son. I apologize that I took so long in arriving. I see that I might’ve spared you some discomfort.” The old man placed the stool a yard away from me and sank down on it, moving the black tome he carried reverently onto his lap; royal blue letters glistened, displaying the title The Divine Truth. “My name is Dia, and yours?”

“Why am I in chains?” I asked.

“My, my. How rude. Are you not going to answer my question?”

I stared at him.

Dia shook his head. “You are in those chains because you are a savage. You have been brought here to become civilized. To learn the truth of Safad and to accept him as your god.”

I laughed, taken aback at the absurdity. I gave a hideous grin.

“Mhm, yes. It becomes ever so apparent that Mujadin wasn’t mistaken about you. We will remedy that with the help of Safad’s everlasting grace.”

“Safad?” I cleared my raw throat, wincing with pain. “You people are so damn smug, using him to excuse every little thing you do. Safad this, Safad that. I can’t believe you don’t see through the idiocy in your own circular logic . Killing sinners is good. Why? Because Safad says so; he’s an infallible God. Don’t you see that he’s just manipulating you? That he’s the greatest con man of all time?” Disgust crept into my voice and acrimony surged through my veins, getting thicker by the second.

Dia glared at me. “You ignorant fool. This land worshipped that false god, Leiol, before Safad revealed himself to us and showed us how misguided we’d been! For centuries, he’s watched humanity and grown sick and tired of our ways, for not giving him the glory he deserved. So he physically-incarnated himself to explain the truth and give humanity a final chance before he destroys it!

“Your father is allowing you another opportunity to convert and save your soul, so be grateful! Lawbreakers and blasphemers get destroyed permanently at death while the mildly faithful get centuries of excruciating torture if we do not uphold Safad’s honor. Don’t you understand how lucky you are? We could’ve simply killed you to gain favor with Safad. Those of strong faith are granted kingdoms of their hearts’ desires.

“So I urge you—see the truth and stop with your insane doubt! Safad brought people back from the dead, he cast his lightning at Leiol’s priests, and they disintegrated into ash! Is that the work of a ‘con man’ as you say? Safad is the true creator of humanity, guiding us with mercy for a final time. And yet you spit on his very name…”

“I shit on his very name, old man. My grandfather spoke of how your crazy devotion to this tyrant destroyed the harmony in this country. Your faith spread like a poison, consuming others with hatred for those who believed differently.”

I broke into a coughing fit, my eyes watering, tears dropping down onto my chapped lips. “I only see it for what it truly is. Safad uses you as a means of control and manipulation for his own twisted amusement, establishing fear and mental gymnastics at every turn so that even moral people can have license to bask in power and oppress others. I will never worship Safad. I will never align myself to you, the Circle, or my bloody father.”

Dia shot to his feet, yelping in indignation, a shocked scowl on his face. Gone was the previous kindness and serenity exhibited by the older man. He held up his book. “If you will not surrender to Safad willingly and accept his love and guidance, then you will be subjected to his wrath! Baqir!”

The wooden door at the end of the room slammed against the far wall, and the gray-haired man walked in from darkness, a wicked smile smeared across his worn face. The one who had awakened me. His two acquaintances followed, carrying a black, metallic box.

Dia turned to the gray-haired man. “Baqir, place the fear of Safad in him! He holds no respect for anyone. I need some fresh air as I have had enough of his excrement and hideous nature.” With that, the older man stormed out of the room.

Baqir stared at me, a baffled look upon his face. “How stupid can you be, mutt?”

He signaled to his accomplices, and the men placed the box on the floor, opening the lid with a type of adoration that chilled me. Baqir walked over to it and surveyed it, scratching his head. Then he retrieved something black—a coiled whip, ominous as a restrained lightning bolt. A tremor of dread arose within me, my current wounds seeming to cry out in anticipation, throbbing and weeping a fresh wave of blood and pus, pleading with me to do whatever I could to avoid further torture.

“What’s your actual name?” Baqir paused, his face serious.

I blinked, jarred by the man’s sudden civility. “Malik.”

Baqir nodded. “Malik. You upset the old chap by insulting our Divine One, Safad. That wasn’t a good idea at all…”

“I voiced the truth—that you all hide behind the trousers of your man-god like a horde of bitches!” I yelled. I didn’t want to hear any more about Safad. I was sick of hearing that name. Ever since I was ten, from my father, from his soldiers, at the town square, by the people. Every single day. I never wanted to be bound in the chains of their ‘Divine One’ or any of his followers—I would rather die than succumb to their wicked ways.

Baqir shook his head. “Dumbass.”

The whip howled through the air, a loud crack ringing in my ears. A fiery, red line seared itself onto me, eating at my torso, ripping out a chunk of flesh all the way up to my chest and collarbone. My body cringed and then drooped limply after a few seconds, my chains rattling.

“That one is for the insult with Dia.”

Another lightning bolt crackled through the thick air of the stuffy room. Crack! Fury raced through my veins. Crack! The leather ripped through my upper thigh, oblique, and left pectoral. Crack! I let out a scream, pulling up on the manacles encompassing my wrists. Crack! Agony bolted through me and I fell limply again, my chest heaving.

Baqir approached me. “Safad—”

“Is not a god.”

“RAWWWGHR!”

Crack! Blood sprayed into my face, blinding me. The air vibrated—I gulped—Crack! I moaned, my lungs seizing. “Safad!” Crack! Fire engraved on my cheek, chin, collarbone. Crack! “Is!” My pectorals were ripped raw, blood red. Crack! “Your!” My shins tore to shreds. Crack! “God!” Blood streamed from deep gashes on my stomach. I closed my eyes tightly, trembling. Crack! Crack! Crack! Blood covered my body everywhere. My lungs heaved.

“Safad…”

I groaned, cringing back, flinching, expecting my harrowing state to worsen. Nothing hit me. No destruction or leather eating away. I opened my eyes, shaking, tears dripping down my cheeks.

Roaring laughter met my ears from the men before me. “Not so tough now, eh? Is Safad your god now, or not?”

A wave of black hatred oozed from within my chest. I thought of my father and his smug smile. Bile grew in my throat, and a fire rose within me, howling and fervent. “No.”

Baqir scowled. “Okay, we’ll see about that.”

As he threw his whip inside the black box, one of his aides pulled out three thin, black sticks, half a yard in length and solid steel. The aide handed one to Baqir and one to the other man, keeping one for himself. Baqir approached me briskly, pressing down on his baton. Sparks flew out, engulfing it at one end, pulsing in a violent swirl. Volatile and merciless. Lightning at his command. He paused to look at me.

I spat at Baqir. I would never bow before these mongrels and their man-god. I would deny Safad until I died. I hated him, I hated my father, I hated Baqir! I hated this country and the Eternal Circle. Just as my grandfather had—just as he’d been steadfast to the end, so would I.

Baqir’s lip curled up and lightning flew forth, stabbing into me—my breath was gone, pulled out savagely. Knives ripped into me, slicing deep into every piece of my body, pulsing through me, twisting my insides. My vision clouded, blurred. My restraints rattled. Wham! My shins splintered. Pain exploded on my elbow. Another strike at my collarbone. Boom! My head. Boom! Boom! Boom! My face, forearm, kneecap, all pulsing with the force of a thousand lightning bolts of electricity shooting into my body. Breathless and trembling, I hung. Finished.

“Ahhh!” My shoulder blade vibrated under a final blow. Metal pushed deeper into my stomach, and the lightning grew stronger. I retched, but nothing came up. Saliva pooled in my mouth and foamed up a frothy stickiness that glued my lips together. I had never paid attention to my bones, but now they ached fervently, every inch of them.

Rough hands seized my face, smelling of leather. A fierce whisper. “Who is your god?”

I drew my head away, trying to escape it all, every fiber in my being screaming for relief, mental and physical. I moaned and white lather fell from my mouth, plopping as it hit the floor. I broke into a fit of coughing, blood spurted out of my mouth, and I shuddered. I’m bleeding internally…I need to give in.

“All you have to do is say that Safad is your god. Just say it. Safad is my god. Yes…”

I trembled and opened my mouth to say the words, but came face-to-face with a storm of blows. Boom! Boom! Boom!ankles, wrists, forehead, cheeks, knees, groin. I let myself hang forward on the chains, not daring to move my beaten pulp of a body. My heart hammered, my soul helpless. I sobbed, my misery echoing across the chamber.

“Four words, and it’ll all end. Yes, Safad. Yes, Safad.” The voice was pleading, consoling.

My mouth parted, and I drew in a shuddering breath. I shivered in agony, and Baqir stared at me, serious.

“Say it. Don’t be stupid, Malik…”

“Yes…Safad…” I wheezed, struggling to stay conscious. I felt a shameful tidal wave engulf me from head to toe. I’d failed Genrid and everything he stood for. Grandfather, I’m sorry.

A momentary pause. “Is my god.” Baqir waved a hand. “Right?”

Silence. Bam! A blow to the face, ringing inside my head.

“Is my god! Is my god! Malik!” roared Baqir.

“Is…my…god,” I gasped, barely able to speak.

“The truth has now been voiced. Today is a marvelous day. A lost soul has accepted his true master, the Divine One, Safad. Congratulations to you, my son.” Dia. He stood at the doorway, a look of outright joy on his beaming face.

Baqir smiled at me and gave a light smack to my face. “Let him down so he can rest on the floor.”

Boots scuffled and the ground rose up to meet me. My legs crumpled, and I lay on the gray tile, feeling a small semblance of pleasure as its cold touch soothed my broken body. I closed my eyes, burning with pain and shame.

“Bring that whore in. The Northeastern woman,” commanded Dia.

The aides followed orders, picking up the black box and taking it away. I opened my eyes halfway and stared at the floor, cold and uncaring. Bittersweet. Dia had his back to me, talking at the doorway. Baqir had departed. Low voices fell, carried down to me followed by whispering I had no chance of making out.

“Keep him alive, or you won’t be. Give him some Astrum Salve to keep him from getting infected and to help him recover for a new session.” The old man stormed off.

Feet shuffled toward me, small and tender and bare, and a wooden bucket thudded as the person above me set it on the floor. Delicate hands touched me, trembling. They rolled me over slowly onto my back. I winced, my heart beating quickly, and I blinked, taken by surprise.

Her beautiful face fell as she looked upon me, taking me in completely. She was an oasis from the torment, light amidst darkness, her beauty battling the shadows in the room. Her shoulders slumped in exhaustion, her face worn but still resilient. Strands of fiery hair peeked out underneath a dull luster and dark circles hung heavy under heavenly eyes.

“You’re okay. It’s going to be okay…” she whispered, her blue eyes wide.

I closed my eyes and lay still. The pain pounded relentlessly in my head. The room spun. “You don’t…have to lie…”

“I’m partly saying that to boost my own confidence; my life is linked to yours.”

I chuckled, coughing mid-way. My body went limp, begging to escape a new wave of pain, and wounded abdomen stretched, the skin straining against raw wounds. My throat was parched, destroyed from screaming, and inhalation drew misery, like a thousand merciless tiny knives stabbing into my lungs.

“I—I need to apply this salve. It should help you heal fast.” The woman pulled out a black canister. “I wanted to clean your wounds first, but…that would cause too much pain. It’s best to do that later.”

“Do…what you need to do…” I wheezed, closing my eyes. If only the torment would stop. Please, make it stop.

“Okay…” She sprayed a thick ointment on her hand. “I’m sorry if this hurts a bit. The pain will lessen once your wounds absorb the salve.”

I barely managed a weak nod and let my body go limp, drawing back into myself. I shuddered as her soft hands met the torn skin on my pectorals. Yet the pain left as quickly as it came, a coolness spreading across my chest like magic, putting out a blazing fire of agony in an instant. I exhaled slowly, the lull of sleep stealing me away. Peaceful, so peaceful now…was this all just a sick nightmare? Was this real?

#

Day of Orbit: 155/405

Hour: 2/32

“Seh” 3/9, Day 20/45

Orbit: 50,132

“Hey.” A delicate finger poked my shoulder. “Hey, wake up.”

“Uhhh.” I cracked my eyelids open, swallowing. No saliva went down my throat, and my entire mouth felt dry.

“How are you feeling?”

I licked my lips, barely able to speak. “W…water…”

“Of course!” The woman’s pale hands moved away from me and reached into a bucket. Water dripped down from her palms as she carried it delicately and brought it to my lips. I drank, basking in the coolness; the chill of the water filled my chest and fanned out like life-saving balm, lending me strength.

“Thank you.” Sighing, I moved my arms and legs a bit. Aching pain ran up through the bones, but the skin no longer smoldered—a layer of white covered the cuts, sealing them from open air. “I…feel better. Like I’m…not on fire anymore.” I put two fingers at my throat, wincing. Every word caused the raw skin inside to pulse with pain. “It hurts…to speak though.”

The woman nodded, her eyes downcast. “Yeah, I understand. I heard some of your screams.”

“Sorry.” I closed my swollen eyes, laying my head back.

“Don’t apologize.” The woman poked my shoulder again. “Hey.”

I let out a breath. “Yes?”

The woman leaned close to me, looking around keenly. “I know who you are.”

I shifted in surprise but groaned as agony spurted through my upper back, keeping me bound to the floor. “How…” I wheezed, trying to keep my voice low, “how…do you know me?”

“I know you because I’ve come to rescue you from this place.”

I blinked at the woman, dumbfounded.

“You saw me. Don’t you remember? You were standing on that platform, echoing what many believe. Didn’t you hear a roar from the crowd when you attacked your father? Many of those were cheers of hope. In that moment, everything was thrown out of balance, and it gave the people a glimpse of what life would be like without Mujadin ruling over them.”

My heart raced. Fiery red hair—blue eyes! The Northeasterners who’d watched my whipping! “I…remember now…” Horrible feelings tore through my veins as I re-lived the memory, robbing me of breath. “Why would…you care? You’re a Northeasterner. We’re nothing more than animals to you.”

A momentary pause. “I—I don’t believe that. I never have. That’s why I’m here. I’m from the Northeastern country of Reutzka. But it’s not about me; it’s about the South—it’s about your country.” The woman’s voice became grave and she drew closer. “You’re the key, Malik Zzoha.”

A storm churned through my head, confusion eating away at me. I didn’t understand. “What’s your name?”

“Alayne.” The woman frowned. “Hey…I see that some of the pain is coming back, especially when you try to move. Can I clean your wounds with water first and then re-apply the Astrum Salve?”

“Yes.” I swallowed. “What…exactly is this…salve?”

“It’s a powerful ointment we developed in the Northeast. It helps you regenerate from flesh wounds at a very accelerated rate. You’ll stay alive with this.”

The woman reached back into the bucket and pulled out a wet cloth. She squeezed the excess water out and dabbed the rag lightly on my chest, soaking up dried blood and the white layer of ointment over it. I winced, every ounce of my tender and damaged flesh rippling with pain once again—though not as terrible as before. The damp cloth hugged my face, caressing my bruises. As sweet as a woman’s kiss.

The Northeastern country of Reutzka…that doesn’t make any sense. I thought back to my time at the university, studying the world and its powers. Nine unified states made up the entire Northeastern continent to form a massive nation called the Assembly, while six separate and distinct countries made up the South. When learning about history, one Northeastern region had always stood out, one with blood-drenched hands, known for its callousness, evil and disregard for human life. “I…only know of the Confederacy, one of your…states in the Assembly.”

“What?” Alayne paused, looking down at me. She frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“What…do you mean?”

“Well, for starters, the Confederacy isn’t a state, it’s a country, Malik. And the Assembly is an association of allied countries, not a nation itself.”

“What?” I licked my lips. “But…I was taught that you all…worked together. Nine states…form a single unified country…in the Northeast. I’ve never heard of Reutzka…being its own country.”

“You were taught wrong, then. I think it was so you would be brainwashed to hate all Northeasterners as a whole and remain ignorant to the truth that some of us want to save you, not kill you. Nine countries make up my continent, Malik. Not just one.

“Seven are members of the Assembly of Global Powers—which to put in simple terms—is an allied police force of Northeastern nations. It was established to keep Reutzka and the Confederacy from breaking out into a major nuclear war. My country and I are the good guys. Reutzkans fight to bring freedom to the South, and we’re working to liberate you and your hometown. We fight for the betterment of humanity.”

I stared at the woman intently, waiting to see the lie behind her eyes, but her gaze didn’t waver under my scrutiny. Teachers, adults, and professors had always taught that Northeasterners only cared about themselves. It had been pounded into me my whole life.

Is she speaking the truth? Her motivations were unclear. Why would she risk her life? Why get imprisoned for…me? It was too much to swallow. A thousand questions burned in my mind, but pain overtook me like a dreadful poison now, with the water sweeping the salve away and biting into my unhealed flesh. I closed my eyes, laying my head back; a wave of nausea suddenly engulfed me at such a simple movement.

“Malik.”

“Leave me be. I don’t buy…your lies and fantasies.”

“Malik, I let myself be captured to be able to fulfill my mission. I…I don’t hate you. I never will. Not after you decided to stand against tyranny.”

“Then tell me why. Why…are you really here?” I opened my eyes again to watch her face.

“I’ve done that already.” Alayne bit her lip. “What do you want to know? Why I, personally, fight?”

“Yes…tell me that.”

“All right. Fine.” The woman’s hands began to tremble as she continued treating me. “There was a woman…very dear to me. She watched Safad proclaim himself god of your country on the news ten years ago. More time passed and she embarked on a trip with a humanitarian group to Uttaca to help provide relief. Safad had just conquered your neighboring country, and there were many injured. She talked to people, helped them get on their feet, but above all else, she tried to get them to stand up against injustice.”

“I see…did she succeed?”

Alayne looked away. “No. She was found out and killed. That woman was my mother.”

I gaped in shock. “I…I’m truly sorry.”

Alayne took a shuddering breath. “Yes…so years later, I joined my country’s military. A movement started within Reutzka to intervene and civilize the South. The plan was to stop Safad and his madness. Uttaca was freed by us three years ago, and now we have sights to free Qashang and fulfill our objective. Safad only controls your country and can’t retreat anywhere else, so if we beat him here, the war is over.”

“But why? Does Reutzka…do this out of the kindness of their hearts? Do you…really care about civilizing us?” A lingering sense of doubt still held within me. It sounded too good to be true—too contradictory to all I had been taught. The Northeast and the South never played kindly together. In fact, the Confederacy had nuked an entire country in the South out of existence a few decades ago.

Alayne gripped my shoulder tightly. “I do. Malik, set aside your prejudice. Your perspective is still clouded by the lies you’ve been told about us, so please, free yourself from that poison. Every country in the Northeast is independent—we don’t work as one. Reutzka is not your enemy, we are not the Confederacy, and the Assembly of Global Powers is not a unified Northeastern country that wants to kill you; again, it is merely an organization to stop nuclear war.”

I digested what the woman said, pondering it over. Uttaca had rebelled against Safad years ago, that much was true. The man-god said they had become savage infidels, backed by all of the Northeast, and fought not only to destroy him—but all of the South as well.

But if that were the case…why hadn’t the ‘unified Northeast’ simply nuked Qashang and Uttaca out of existence if the goal was our total annihilation? It didn’t make sense to send troops to fight in a traditional ground war. Safad and the educators lied. I sighed, wincing. What Alayne said makes sense…the Northeastern continent is partitioned into separate, sovereign powers. I’ve been deceived for years so I can hate foreigners I’ve never even met.

“You’re just like her, you know. My mother. Noble, courageous, steadfast. You were her hope manifest in the flesh. You were what she sought—someone willing to stand up even if it cost them their life. Someone willing to throw fearful superstition out the window and take a leap of faith that Safad isn’t divine.”

I stared at the ceiling above Alayne’s head. My pain was real—it grew the further she wiped away at my wounds—yet I wanted to ask one more question to make sure she hadn’t spun a wild tale. “So, you’re doing all of this…for your mother? What if you’ve been told lies…for you to join your nation’s army? How…do you know you’re…the good guys?”

“I was there in Uttaca when my mother went on her humanitarian trip.” Alayne’s nostrils flared. “I heard her screams when they tortured her endlessly. And I woke up the next morning to find her hanging from a streetlamp with other people I knew. Courtesy of Eternal Circle. Years later, I fought to liberate Uttaca as a soldier on the ground, killing countless of Safad’s troops. I’m here because I want to be, Malik. So when I say ‘we’re the good guys,’ it’s because I’ve been saving people and kicking ass for a while now.”

Silence descended upon us, its pale grip tightening around the room like a vise. The dynamic had shifted. Remorse ate at me. “I’m sorry…for not believing you, Alayne. I lost my grandfather to the Eternal Circle. He wanted the same thing your mother wanted. Freedom for all.”

Alayne nodded slowly, melancholy. “I know. I’m part of Reutzkan Intelligence. I know many things about you. But what matters is that I’m going to free you from this place. With you, the people in Atemhop will overthrow your father. And from there, who knows?”

“Do you have faith in me…or swathes of…optimism?” I questioned.

Alayne paused. “A bit of both.”

“I’ll go along with…your plan. You…have a plan, right?”

Alayne grimaced. “It’s in the making. I need to observe the guards’ patterns and defenses before we make a move. I’m getting familiar with the layout of this prison. Reutzkan soldiers are in place to aid us when we make it past the walls of this horrible, religious gulag.”

I managed to give her a weak nod as my body smoldered in agony. “Let us hope I…don’t die before you do…”

Alayne smiled. “I won’t let that happen. We’ll escape this place and then we will kill your father. That’s a promise.”

A twinkle of hope surged within me as I felt the woman’s passion and conviction. The resoluteness in her posture and countenance was to be admired, and it was a warm contrast to my previous hopelessness. Though my injuries rendered me useless, strength seeped into my soul, nullifying some of the pain.

“You need to rest some more. Let me apply more of that Astrum Salve to help you recover faster. I don’t know how long it’ll be until those torturers get back.”

And I did. The darkness took me once again, a warm welcome amidst the cool ointment which kissed my destroyed flesh, spread by tender fingers.

***

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