Tethered: A Vocal+ New Worlds Writing Challenge

I originally wrote and published this story for Vocal+ New Worlds Writing Challenge. The prompt was to write the first chapter of a science-fiction story, using the first line: “nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.”

I loved the story that came out of this challenge so much, I had to share it here. I hope to keep writing more of Lania’s story in the coming months. I’m in the process of editing The Twin Hypothesis, so new projects like this one might be a little slow going, but it’s fun to switch gears and create a sci-fi world.

I’ll stop blathering now so you can get to the story. I hope you enjoy it!

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say.

It’s not a theory I’m keen to test.

It doesn’t matter what I think, though. Not anymore.

I raise my head as the lock to my cell disengages. I fix my eyes on the grey wall across from me, unwilling to pay the Avarn mercenary any attention as he enters the room.

Ice-cold fingers wrap around my bicep. They give a hard yank and I’m pulled to my feet. I’m forced to look up at the merc – my lest favourite member of all the crew – as he grips me tighter.

“This way, girlie.”

It takes all my willpower not to recoil at the rancid odour coming from his mouth. It seems the crew had seafood for dinner. Again. I’m not sure if the smell or the chunks of chowder stuck in his teeth are worse. Either way, I force my expression not to give away my disgust.

His lips twist beneath a particularly unimpressive beard at my lack of reaction, before he shoves me towards the cell door.

“It’s handover time.”

Great.

More guards fall into step with us as I’m frogmarched down the hall. A chill races down my spine when we reach the airlock in the hangar. Another merc waits for us, a padded suit in his arms. Lights reflect off his bald head and the cool tones make his blue skin look even paler. My stomach dips. I didn’t think the Captain would waste his time supervising my sendoff.

The Captain smiles at me.

“Lania, you’re looking well,” he drawls. This time, I cave to my baser instincts. I bare my teeth at him, unable to hold back my irritation and disgust. He knows full well I’ve lost weight since falling into his care, enough that my bones protrude an alarming amount beneath my sunken skin.

There are virtually no other signs of my mistreatment, but that is the reason I’m here, after all. Sark, my race, are virtually indestructible thanks to our natural healing capabilities. Short of starvation and dehydration or a particularly violent attack, we survive. Heal. Even up to the point of regrowing lost limbs and appendages.

The rarity of our healing capabilities make our people incredibly valuable – but also feared. We’re ruthless warriors, but only by necessity. If we chose passivity, we would all be locked in labs, dissected and tortured, stripped of our rights, in the name of study. Instead, we formed tight-knit communities, advanced our tech, and developed our martial skill until Sark became the most feared race in the Verse.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t actively apart of any Sark communities. So when the locals of Creyan sold me out to these mercenaries, no one was there to guard my back as I fought.

My gaze narrows on the Captain and I finally smile. It’s not a very nice look.

“As are you, Captain, considering your death is just around the corner.” I lean forward, since my guard won’t let me step any closer. “When the Sark learn what you’ve done to me, they will destroy you. There’s no mercy for mercenaries like you.”

The Captain shows just how stupid he is when he laughs. Only fools brush threats from the Sark aside. “Lania, how will they find out?” He spreads his hands, gesturing at his ship and crew. “No one here will sell us out. Your buyers won’t breath a word of this transaction. And you’ll be locked in a testing lab in the deepest space technology can find.”

If anything, my smile only grows. “We’ll see.”

The Captain’s expression wavers for the briefest moment, before he blanks all signs of emotion. He holds the suit up. “You’ll be needing this.”

“Mmm, I was thinking I might test my healing capabilities in the vacuum of space without a suit. You know, for research.” I would rather freeze in space than go through with this horrible scheme of theirs.

The Captain sighs. “I suspected you would cause trouble, even now.” He looks to my guard. “Trake.”

Before I can move, Trake slaps a cuff around my wrist. It locks and beeps once, three green lights flashing. They turn red as Trake releases me, taking several hasty steps backwards. I hiss as I realise what’s about to happen.

There’s little I can do to brace against the bolts of electricity that shoot from the cuff. My muscles quiver and turn slack. I hit the ground with enough force my vision blurs. My body heals the worst of the damage from the impact and the electricity, almost in real time, but it soon falls behind. After weeks of experimenting on me, these mercs know just how high the voltage should be and just how long they need to shock me to render me immobile, even if only for a minute.

Just as the room starts to spin, the shock ends.

I’m completely at the mercy of the Avarn as their cold hands take hold of me.

I’m lifted enough for Trake to slide the giant suit up my body. Even without my recent weight loss, the suit would still dwarf me. He adjusts a few straps to make it a better fit, but it’s a lost cause. A sleek transparent helmet is pushed over my head and twisted to lock into the neck of the suit, ripping strands of hair from my scalp in the process.

Feeling returns to my fingers and toes, creeping into my hands and feet. But it’s not enough. Trake tosses me through the door to the small decompression chamber. I hit the floor hard enough to rattle my teeth.

Facedown, I’m unable to watch as the door is sealed behind me. An alarm starts to blare, a red light flashing in sync with the computerised voice counting down. In a few short seconds, I’ll be ejected into the vacuum of space. Left to float on my own, with nothing but this suit. The oxygen will only last so long.

I squeeze my eyes shut as the feminine voice counts.

Ten.

Nine.

Eight.

Were I braver, I’d stare my fate down with open eyes. But I’m not.

I’m a coward – a fact I’ll freely admit to anyone who cares to ask. I know my people would agree.

I curl in on myself as her count reaches its end.

Three.

Two.

One.

The heavy bay door slides open. With nothing to hold to, I’m sucked straight through the opening, as if dragged by invisible hands. My momentum sends me spinning, spiralling, far away from the Avarn ship. It grows smaller the further I drift, the faster the Captain pushes the ship. When my spinning finally stops, the ship is gone from sight. They can’t be here when my buyers arrive to collect.

This deep in space, two ships rendezvousing would draw the attention of authorities. Neither parties can afford a visit from any kind of governing body, especially not one set in place by the Sark.

That means it will be hours before someone comes to collect me.

I wrap my arms over my waist, hugging myself. It’s so dark and silent. Pricks of light are the only break in the otherwise monotonous black. Such a lonely and desolate sight. My throat tightens, making it hard to breath.

What if my buyers never show? What if they’re detained somewhere and reach me too late? I’ll drift, completely alone and untethered, for twenty-four hours before oxygen finally runs out. I grip myself tighter. Would it be so bad if they never came? Wouldn’t it be better to take the long sleep than spend the rest of my life owned by money-hungry bastards?

I finger the clasps at my neck, warring with myself. I could unclasp my helmet. Go out on my own terms.

Something stays my hand. That tiny voice in the back of my mind, urging me not to cave.

I let my hands fall to my sides, unable to give in.

As I stare into the blackness of space, I suddenly find myself agreeing with the Captain. No one is going to hear me when I scream.

———

Exhaustion drags at my limbs. Without proper nutrition, even a body as regenerative as mine is unable to keep me alert. I slowly twist my arm to show the control panel on my left sleeve. The oxygen bar is two-thirds depleted.

Eight hours are all I have left.

My eyelids slide shut. My resolve from earlier wavers. Is this really the way I want to go? Alone and resigned to my fate?

Before I can decide, something brushes against my senses. Without anything to push off, I’m unable to turn around. All I can do is float through the black sky, helpless to shield myself when light pierces through the material of my helmet. My stomach twists.

It would seem my new owners have found me.

I stiffen as a mechanical tether lashes around my waist, the dark metal wrapping itself three times around my torso before going taut. It drags me backwards, my arms and legs trailing after me. 

I’m deposited inside a small room onboard the ship that will serve as both hell and home for the foreseeable future. The tether unwinds, slinking back into the wall it came from.

A siren wails loud enough I curl in on myself. Air presses against me from all sides as the chamber is pressurised. It’s not a pleasant feeling.

Finally, the blue light blinks off, signalling that it’s safe for me to remove my suit. I waste no time unlocking my helmet and stripping the suit off. I need my full range of motion. So long as I’m in this part of the ship, there’s still a chance I can escape. If I fight my new owners off long enough, I can get to a ship in the hangar. Then it’s just a matter of avoiding recapture long enough to reach patrolled space. I’ll be safe. I can disappear again.

And this time, no one will find me.

The door to the chamber slides open in a rush. I jump to my feet, sinking into a defensive crouch. My focus wavers at the face that greets me. Blood thunders through my veins, loud enough I can hear little else.

In my head, I gently probe the mental shields I have wrapped around my mind. Few know that Sark also have strong telepathic bonds with their people. It acts both as a communication system and a beacon. The location of an unshielded mind is broadcast on a mental frequency known only to the Sark, pinpointing the exact location of an individual.

It’s no surprise I keep my mind tightly shielded. The last thing I need is the Sark finding me. But there – a small hole has formed in the shield. It would barely send a ripple through the frequency, but to any Sark who knows me well, it would be like hearing me scream.

A sick feeling settles in my gut. My shields must have been damaged amidst all the pain. After weeks of torture and experimentation, starvation and electrical shocks, it’s no surprise my concentration lapsed and my shields suffered.

Still, I should have been stronger.

The man in the doorway enters the chamber, pausing when he’s a single pace from me. I stare past his shoulder, unwilling to meet his gaze. He gazes down at me – an easy thing to do when you’re six foot three to my five foot four. Goosebumps form on my skin under the weight of his look. I force myself not to let on that his presence affects me.

But I can’t help it, not when he finally speaks.

Words roll from his tongue in a familiar sonorous tone, sending ripples through my mind and soul like pebbles skipped on a lake.

“Welcome home, love.”

Of their own accord, my eyes lock on the face of my mate – the one I rejected and ran from nearly ten years ago. I wasn’t ready to settle down and fit into his neat life then; I’m not ready now.

Emotions flit across his face, too fast for me to track. Only anger and guilt remain as he takes in my malnourished form.

“It’s Lania to you,” I snap, standing straighter. The anger fades and he smiles, a familiar indulgent expression reserved only for me.

“Lania, love,” he croons, just to irritate me.

“What are you doing here?” I demand.

“I heard you were in trouble.” He taps his forehead, telling me it was the gap in my shields that gave it away. “I thought I’d stop by this dark corner of the Verse and collect my mate before slavers could.”

“I’m not your mate.” The denial is instant. I don’t care what tethers my mind formed with his when we reached maturity. Only I get to decide whom I give up my freedom for.

The smile falls from his face, sending my pulse spiking once again. I back up as he prowls towards me, retreating one step for every one he takes forward. I snarl when my back finally hits the wall, finding myself caged within the frame of his arms. He doesn’t touch me as he leans in, but he’s close enough my lips could brush his were I to lean forward an inch.

Not that I plan to.

When he speaks, his voice is lower than before, rasping with unfeigned emotion. “Lania, I have scoured the Verse for a decade, searching for the slightest trace of you. You were my best friend, the blade and shield protecting my back. I thought I was the same for you.” His lips tremble for a beat before he firms them. “If I had known this mate tether would destroy all that… that I would lose you for ten years, I would have-”

“You would have what?” I interrupt, disliking how his words weigh on my chest. Each breath is harder than the last. “We don’t get to choose our mates. The tethers happen of their own accord. You couldn’t have stopped it if you’d tried.”

“I suppose that means we should embrace our fate, instead of trying to run from it then.”

“No.”

He chuckles at the speed of my response. His chest is close enough to mine I can almost feel the vibrations as he laughs. He raises a hand to cup my jaw, sending electricity winging through my limbs – the good kind, this time.

“You’re my mate, Lania. You disappeared before we had a chance to try making things work the first time around. I won’t let history repeat now.” He sweeps his thumb over my cheekbone in an idle caress. “Ten days. That’s all I’m asking of you.”

“What?”

“Give me ten days where we treat each other as mates, not enemies. Let me show you what a life together could be like. If, at the end of the ten days, you’re still unhappy with the thought of spending the rest of your life with me, I’ll walk away from you. You’ll never see me again.”

I stare at him, unable to comprehend what he’s offering me.

“Why ten days?” I nearly wince at the idiotic question. Of all the things I could have asked, I chose that?

The corners of his lips twitch. “One day for every year you ran from me. From us.” He moves impossibly closer, the heat from his skin thawing the chill lingering on my own. It’s as if I’ve been starved of warmth for the better part of ten years. “So, what do you say? Will you give me ten days living as my mate, or will I spend the rest of my life chasing you?”

His offer is so unfair, it almost feels wrong to accept, like I’d be taking sweets from an infant. After a decade of ignoring my feelings for him, ten days will pass by at star speed. There’s nothing he can do to sway me. And after, I’ll be free of him for good. I’ll be able to come out of hiding and live among my people again. I won’t be at the mercy of slavers or mercenaries. Won’t have to fear people learning of my existence and sending mobs after me. 

I’m unable to stop myself from smiling. He wants ten days to live as mates. In little over a week, I’ll be free, once and for all.

“Ten days,” I agree.

His lips brush my ear as he leans in. “Ten days, mate.”

The rumble of his voice sends a tremor down my spine. Suddenly, I’m not so confident the next ten days will be as easy as I thought.

 

 – Tahlia with an H

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