Lukian breezed to the assembly line’s input kiosk in the cafeteria. He watched automated machines ration slabs of grease-doused mystery meat, microwave-ready pancakes drowned with synthetic syrup-sweetener.
And the little baked balls. Lukian had no idea what they were supposed to be, but he refused to touch them. He referred to them as ‘sludgemuffins.’
He claimed his metal tray with apathy and shuffled toward his usual table.
He never arrived this early: the dining hall was sparsely populated. Lukian preferred to spend his extra morning minutes hidden behind the curtain in his dorm, musing on the world below–but surely, Aiden would have reported him.
The tragedy was Lukian’s sanity depended desperately upon every spare moment of silence to maintain any equilibrium. Now he was robbed of his peace, trapped in this hell.
Considering Krodha introduced them, it was probable that Krodha sent Aiden to spy on him, to watch him until he slipped, to cash in on the perfect opportunity to ship him to therapy.
Perhaps Lukian would be kept in therapy indefinitely: this was his greatest fear. Fragments of previous sessions flashed before his eyes–the hard knuckles in his face, the crack of the baton against his ribs, the electric shocks until he fainted–he shuddered.
“Top of the morning to you, Lukian!” Benny claimed a jolly throne by the window.
Benny’s exuberance wove the illusion of more life, more color in this grey-walled pen, this prison, than existed in reality. To smile indiscriminately every morning? Lukian was way too debased for that.
He sat beside Benny whenever possible. The radiant warmth of his cheerful, pudgy face melted the edges of Lukian’s frosty exterior.
Lukian stared with despair at his breakfast tray. He couldn’t wait to slop the indigestible anathema onto Benny’s plate. Benny loved breakfast.
What wasn’t there to love about Benny?
Lukian finally acknowledged him with a nod, smiling into a cup of burnt, bitter coffee. It ravaged his throat, like national vodka, sweet vodka he would enjoy tonight.
He would enjoy forgetting all the events of the day, and possibly the entire course of his life.
And if he drank enough to vomit? That was a pleasure, compared to his job.
Tough, blonde Maximus joined them. “Good morning, men!” He slammed the tray against the table, a territorial assertion.
Guillermo, a wiry, high-strung, fragile man, claimed a seat one-removed from everyone else at the table.
“This food!” Benny spoke with a mouthful, waving a disposable utensil speared with slices of pancake. “It’s delightful!”
Lukian nodded, never bothering to make eye contact with any of the joiners at his table. He sporked chunks of seared deli meat onto Benny’s tray.
“Can you believe the 06:00 news?!” Maximus slapped his palms against the table, the impact splashing a tsunami of coffee from Lukian’s cup onto the table.
Lukian’s eyes flashed with anger.
“Logically, we’ve all heard the news.” Guillermo slurped something from a carton.
“I am beside myself.” Maximus planted a hand over his forehead and looked to the sky, slamming a heavy palm against the table, spilling everyone’s drinks.
Guillermo appeared equally displeased.
Benny didn’t notice.
“It chokes me that no men were sent to the Northern Quarter.” Maximus brought his hands to his face. “We could have that entire area under strategic lockdown in forty-eight hours–”
“More troops in the Northern Quarter, huh.” Lukian’s heart knocked in his chest: did he miss the morning news? Did he not remember? Was he daydreaming?
His slips increased in frequency. It was a matter of time until his charade crumbled, along with his mind, and he was sent for more therapy–
A fifth chair squealed as Aiden Blaine inserted himself at the head of the table. “Actually, it was through the graces of Lukian that I was further acquainted with the lovely premises this morning.” He offered a charming grin.
The sight of his fiery hair pulled Lukian from his cup of coffee.
“I believe it is your duty, as fellow patriots, to bring him up to speed.” Aiden sat upright, clasping his spork and flaccid knife, and cut through the inedible refuse on his tray with sublime decorum.
“Oh, everyone.” Lukian narrowed his eyes with a venomous scowl. “This is my new roommate, Aiden Blaine.” If he had a sludgemuffin, he would have eaten it, because enduring a sludgemuffin was preferable to forced, public amiability with Krodha’s pet snitch.
Aiden flashed the table a glittering, disarming grin.
Benny extended his arm for a handshake; Maximus gave a hearty nod and palm-slapped the table; Guillermo studied him with distrust.
Lukian swallowed, feeling the itch of breaking into a nervous sweat: already, Aiden intuited the rhythm of his closely-guarded lethe. Lukian gave no such tour this morning–
Then, what was he doing during the news?
“One of the most difficult crimes to commit–” Maximus pounded the table with a fist. “–is the removal of a personal SET chip.”
“It’s suicide!” Benny spat a hunk of something when he spoke. “You’d never be able to buy any food.” He wiped his mouth. “Or ride the bus–”
“There’s more to the story.” Guillermo pushed a pair of glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Working in my department makes me privy to certain pieces of information before they are official news. It turns out three citizens have disconnected from the system this week, presumably in isolated instances.” He slurped from his carton. “And what’s more intriguing, two of them are felons.”
Lukian kept his nose buried in his sad and empty coffee cup. His eyes wandered to Guillermo. “And this is intriguing, why…?”
“Different versions of the SET chips have different security mechanisms and levels of encryption, suited to their purposes. Civilian chips are basic, but the chipset implanted in felons are encrypted similarly to our own. I’m talking top-of-the-line security, not something any schmuck can crack–”
Benny stared blankly.
Lukian wished he could disappear: he felt Aiden’s eyes on his neck.
Maximus thumped a fist against the table. “So?!”
“So.” Guillermo crumpled the carton. “Two men, this week, in separate instances, were able to have chips with state-of-the-art military encryption removed.”
His pause for emphasis passed in underappreciation.
“You’re not understanding.” He adjusted his glasses. “As a failsafe, those chips are designed so they cannot be removed by one man alone, without initiating self-destruct. Therefore, there are numerous individuals with sufficient technological prowess to crack our military encryption slithering around out there, beneath the radar, on the loose! Organized, and helping felons!”
Benny’s eyes were wide with terror. “I didn’t know my chip could self-destruct.”
“Of course you wouldn’t.” Guillermo rolled his eyes. “And the third man was a civilian.”
“We need to increase the martial presence in the area!”
Lukian winced before Maximus’s hand hit the table.
“I heard the felons flee to the industrial sectors.” Maximus wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Because it’s the only place they can’t be tracked.”
“The only way to reduce the electromagnetic interference that prevents the tracking is to cut power to an entire prefecture.” Guillermo shook his head. “Sadly, the option is untenable.”
Lukian noticed Aiden scrutinizing him. Lukian ran out of coffee long ago–it spilled–but that didn’t stop him from pretending to drink, hiding from the world in the cozy sea of his black mug.
Now, he was angry: Aiden subtly invaded every escape from reality that Lukian knew. He invaded his dorm, and now his mind.
Worse, he passed no judgment: was he a snitch in waiting, or was he perversely unbound to the moral conduct of the Empire?
Aiden was aware of Lukian’s daydreaming, his disconnect, but offered no reprimand. Daydreaming was a grave infraction all were ordered to report, a severe symptom of illness that required immediate therapeutic intervention.
Aiden’s silent complicity without acknowledgement of the thumping vein, the vital force behind Lukian’s struggle became the ultimate insult to his suffering and exhaustion, his humiliation and deprivation, his begging for a pittance to scrape through this harsh reality he never asked to live.
And he felt anger: he wanted to spring across the table and smash his fist through Aiden’s pretty skull. He wanted to defend his psychological territory, his safe place to retreat, and declare that no man could destroy the petty existence he battled to maintain in this desolate, frozen hell.
Then it happened: Lukian became incredibly aware of himself, his feelings. He shifted, consciously but imperceptibly, into the singularity of a moment. Face flushed, heart pounding, Lukian sat in awe of the surge of emotion powerful enough to remove him from his bland penitentiary.
Willful introspection, of course, dissolved the miracle immediately: Lukian slammed his empty mug against the table, puzzled, angry, and incomplete.
Benny awkwardly slid his cup across the table to Lukian, sloshing sugar-cream-with-a-splash-of-coffee over the sides. “You can have mine, if you’re tired.”
The entire table watched him: he had three seconds to explain himself. “That’s crazy news.” Lukian laughed, eyes shifting to the window.
It was snowing. It was always fucking snowing. Why did he bother to look?
“And, no, Benny, I’m okay, thanks.”
He wondered for how long Aiden would defend his bursts of insanity, if it was Aiden that pushed him over the edge.
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Genre – Sci-Fi/Steamy Romance
Rating – R (18+)