"Get away from there," Henry "Hank" Tappen shouted, watching as Dr. Karl Johnson hovered at the large open archway that looked out over the city.
"I'm not going to do myself in," Johnson said calmly, turning and slamming his hand against the air. Hank didn't expect the loud thunk when Johnson apparently hit something. "It's another force field. They're incredibly fond of them."
"I guess it wouldn't look good if prisoners went splat on the city streets."
After the guards had dragged them from the throne room, Hank and Johnson had been thrown into one of the trams, which flew to one of the tall spiraling towers, where they had been deposited through that open doorway, left to watch as the guards left with the tram and their only means of leaving the room. Ingenious prison, Hank thought, with freedom visible, yet completely out of reach.
This room bore little resemblance to the opulent elegance of the palace. There were no tapestries, fancy carpets, or polished dark furniture. Instead, Hank could have been looking at one of any rooms on the Mercury, their starship. Two beds, twin size, flanked the small room, with its bare stone walls, and pale carpeting, with an odd looking shelving unit along one wall, he couldn't tell if it were metal or plastic. He poked his head into the only other door in the room and found the bathroom, which had the usual facilities, plus a sunken tub that looked a bit too decadent for a prison.
He guessed these people couldn't give up their luxuries completely. Either that or they had a thing about cleanliness. When he thought back to the half-naked slave who had offered himself to Hank's team, it made a sick sort of sense. At least they were left their clothes, although the guards in the gold skirts had taken their packs.
Hank dropped onto one of the beds, tucking his hands behind his head as he leaned into the very soft pillow. Might as well rest when he could, there was no way of knowing exactly what their captors planned.
"Are you napping?" Johnson asked, incredulous.
"Do you hear me snoring?" Hank shot back, not opening his eyes.
"Shouldn't you be doing something? Trying to escape?"
Hank could picture Johnson flailing his arms as he spoke. "Right, I'll just grow a pair of wings and get right on that."
"You're military. Shouldn't you have some sort of plan for this type of situation?"
"Usually the plan is 'don't get caught'," Hank sighed. "If we're throwing around blame, you're the one who got 'em all fired up in the first place."
Silence, for a blessed moment. Hank was almost to dozing when Johnson finally replied.
"I don't believe in remaining silent when confronted with slavery."
"Stars," Hank muttered. "You might want to stuff that line of conversation." He gave up on sleep and moved to sit up. Johnson still stood at the odd makeshift window, his back to the room and Hank. "You know, that's not like you, Karl. You usually know when to shut the hell up."
"Major…" Johnson started, the use of Hank's rank a warning. Of course, the room was probably bugged, every word recorded and every action watched.
"Look, Karl," Hank tried again without his usual sarcasm. "Even if we can get out of this tower, then where do we go? We're stuck in the city, and they have every advantage. They have our weapons, our communicators. And I don't know about you, but I wouldn't even know where to begin using the crazy tech they got here."
And Johnson wanted Hank to figure a way out of here? Sure, he'd get right on that. His fingers itched at his belt, where his communicator normally rested. They had taken that too, as if they had known. Hank didn't know how they could have, the tech here looked damned different than anything at home.
"Rest up. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts." He left the whole 'you don't know what they're going to do to us' left unspoken. Better not worry the good doctor just yet.
Johnson never answered so Hank just gave up on him for the moment. He couldn't make the man relax, no matter how soft the sheets were.
In the end, they were left alone for no more than an hour, before part of the wall directly opposite the beds slid away, revealing a score of guards on the other side. Hank hopped out of the bed, ready for whatever was to come. "Hello boys," he said, crossing his arms. "Thanks for showing us the secret entrance."
He could feel Johnson tense behind him, but Hank didn't move, he met the gazes of the guards' head on. After all, how scary were a bunch of guys in skirts? Well, with spears too. The guard who moved to the front and entered first was the guy Hank had sat next to on the tram, Ian. C'mon, Ian, he thought, half giddy.
"The Queen has decided your fates, until your commander comes for you," Ian said. He looked so serious, dark eyes wide, heavy brow furrowed.
"If your commander comes for you," another member of the guard said, stepping into the room. Ian turned and gave him a sharp look.
"Right," Hank said, "I guess it would be too much to hope for a hot toddy and some reading material? I really could use the vacation."
"Major," Johnson hissed. Hank refrained from rolling his eyes, he knew exactly what he was doing – call attention to himself, protect the civilian, do his duty. If the damn doc would just shut up and let him do it.
Hank ignored him. "So? What the hell does she want from us?"
"You are to be trained as proper subs," Ian said, his body stiff. He bore little resemblance to the young man on the tram, the carefree soldier with too much time on his hands. There he'd returned Hank's jokes, had seemed fascinated with the people from the stars, eager to take them to his queen. Now, Hank thought, Ian pulled back his personality, aware he had his own duty to attend to. Ian stepped forward and held out something.
It took Hank a minute or two to realize he was looking at a white leather collar.
"No," Johnson breathed. "No!"
"Doctor Johnson," Hank barked out. "Enough." He tried to channel Morgan's best command voice, the one that got Johnson to freeze and just do whatever the hell he was told.
Apparently he failed at it spectacularly. Johnson didn't stop. He backed away from the guards who approached him, shouting at the top of his lungs. "I will not be your slave, let me go, no! NO!"
Hank forced himself to remain still, locking his muscles at the cries Johnson made as two of the guards forced him down to his knees, while a third put the collar around his neck. Johnson never stopped fighting, his muscles tense as he struggled against the guards, he snapped at the third guard, teeth coming surprisingly close to doing some serious damage. Once the collar was on they let him go and he leapt to his feet, throwing an inexpert punch at the first guard. They tackled him down to the ground.
"Will you fight as well?" Ian asked softly.
Hank turned away from where Johnson struggled, his heart beating hard against his chest. He knew when to pick his battles. "It's just a collar?" he asked. "It doesn't give electric shocks or anything like that?"
"It's only a training collar," Ian agreed. He lifted the one he still held.
"Fine," Hank said, his voice strangely hoarse. He reached for it, but Ian shook his head. He stepped close and wrapped the leather around Hank's throat. For a moment, Hank could feel the warm mist of breath on his cheek, then he was aware of nothing more but the clasp of the collar around his neck. Ian stepped back, and Hank tugged at the leather, unable to find a seam in it at all.
"You will understand," Ian said, and it sounded like a promise.
"Look," Hank said, hoping for a chance to negotiate. "You gotta give us something here. Can we have our packs? We're stuck in here, bored out of our minds, without even anything to eat…"
"I cannot return your belongings," Ian shook his head. "I know you would attempt to escape. As for food, you are well-equipped with the Dumb Waiter." He moved to the strange shelving unit Hank had noticed, and touched a panel on the side.
Hank watched, marveling as the panel opened and a platter of bread and cheese came through to rest on the counter. Every time he watched the technology work – the way the silvery panels moved, slithering like snakes instead of grinding like metal on metal – he could more and more believe this place was magic and not science at all. "Ok, food covered. Could I at least have my tablet? I was reading this really great novel…"
Ian smiled at him. "Trust me, you won't be bored for long."
That sounded like a warning. Ian nodded his head at the other guards, who dropped Johnson, before exiting the room. One gave a final glare before he left, rubbing at the shiner on his cheek. Hell, Hank never knew the doc had it in him.
"Take the time to refresh yourselves. Training begins early tomorrow morning," Ian said, the panel shutting behind his words.
Hank moved, dropping next to Johnson, checking for injuries. "You hurt?"
"Only my pride." Johnson coughed, sounding a bit more like his old self.
"You have to pick your battles, Karl," Hank said softly, screw whatever bugs the aliens had going. "Otherwise you won't last till Morgan gets back."
Johnson looked up, his eyes red-rimmed, a bruise forming around one eye. "You think Morgan's coming back? You think they'll just let him take us away?"
"We talking about the same Jeff Morgan here? Fuck yeah he's coming back. I wouldn't put it past him to bring an armada."
There, that got a smile out of the guy. "It's a collar, Hank," he said, his voice no more than a whisper. "I swore I…" he stopped, rubbed his throat and winced.
"Try not to think about it," Hank said. "C'mon, there's a bathtub with your name on it. You're lucky you got beat up, otherwise there was no way I'd give you first dibs at the hot water…"
They'd make it through this, somehow. All Hank had to do was keep Karl Johnson together until Morgan came back, hopefully with help.
Hank slept in his t-shirt and boxers. If he was going to have to keep wearing the same clothes, then he was going to do his best to make sure they lasted without stinking up the place. Johnson removed his boots and belt, but had remained dressed otherwise, and Hank didn't ask. Something had hurt the doc, and Hank kept going through the different scenarios in his head, wondering if what he imagined was better or worse than what had actually happened.
He'd wished Karl a good night and then the lights had gone out, almost as if they had been waiting for permission. Hank wasn't sure how long he slept, only that he slowly woke as the lights started to return, first coming up soft and dim, like the new dawn. He looked at their window, only to find the panel closed. Come to think of it, had it closed immediately after Johnson had turned away from staring at the outside? Hank hadn't exactly been paying attention.
A warm rich scent reached his nostrils, and Hank realized a steaming pitcher of something stood at the ready on their Dumb Waiter. He slipped out of bed and took a deeper sniff – caught some kind of spice, like cinnamon, but not quite. Next to the silver pitcher sat a platter filled with delicate looking pastries, the sight of which made his mouth water. "Best prison ever," he whispered, picking up something that looked like a cheese Danish. It melted in his mouth, and Hank barely refrained from moaning, he didn't want to wake up Karl.
Well, he had given in to the food – and really, they had to eat, to keep up their strength, no time to worry about whether or not the food was drugged – so Hank poured himself a steaming cup of what was probably some sort of tea. He took a tentative sip, the tang of spice warm on his tongue and hot as it went down.
"Are you sure you should be doing that?" Johnson rasped from the bed.
Hank sighed. "No, but someone has to test it. If I keel over, you know its poison."
"That's not funny, Hank."
"Fine, we'll just starve while waiting for Morgan to show up."
"I'm more worried about it being drugged." Karl pushed himself up out of the bed. "To make us more pliant to whatever they want from us."
"Anyone ever tell you you're one pessimistic son of a bitch?"
"Just realistic." Johnson looked away. There, that went whatever the hell Hank was missing from the story.
Hank took another sip of the tea – it really was quite good. "Look, I'll be the taste tester. If we notice anything weird, you got my back, ok?" Johnson nodded and pushed past him into the bathroom.
Neither one of them mentioned what would happen if they discovered the food and drink were drugged.
Hank had just come out from his turn in the bath - he had turned his boxers inside out, but was not looking forward to many more days in the same underwear – when a gentle knock sounded on the wall. The panel shimmered open again, in that slightly magical way all the technology had of shifting. To his relief, Ian stood there, no other guards in sight, for the moment.
"Good morning," Hank said brightly. No need to be rude, was there?
Ian nodded at his greeting. "I hope you slept well."
"As could be expected," Hank said. "Considering we're your prisoners."
"Not prisoners. Subs," Ian corrected. "Untrained and unowned. It's for your own welfare that we keep you here."
"Right, how about we argue that another time?" Hank ran a hand through his hair.
Ian inclined his head slightly. "I'm to bring you to your first lesson. There are other guards in the hall." He looked at Johnson pointedly. "Will you come or will I need a leash?"
"You…" Johnson started, and Hank could feel the fury in his tone. He reached out and put a gentle hand on the other man's arm, stilling the tirade. Hopefully Johnson remembered what Hank had said about choosing his battles.
"We'll come with you," Hank said softly.
Ian met his gaze for a moment, but Hank couldn't read those dark eyes at all. He merely stepped back and led them out of the room.
Hank at first wondered why they weren't traveling by Tram, as they filed out into the hall and were surrounded by more of the guards. They really didn't want to chance either of them escaping. He craned his neck to look around as they walked down the hall, but saw nothing more than endless walls, shimmering like the scales of a fish, without a single door until they were led down a small staircase to a glass elevator that looked over the entire city.
"You people sure like your views," Hank marveled, catching sight of the great blue ocean even from here, because of the height of the tower.
Ian threw a smile his way, but Hank could see none of the other guards were smiling; in fact they looked down right pissed off. Well, good, as long as he could keep them being pissed off at him and not Johnson.
"We are going to the very bottom," Ian explained, touching the glass, with no visible buttons that Hank could see, and then the elevator began to move.
He only noticed the motion because he could see the view changing, the heart of the city getting closer, the lovely view disappearing as they neared the first floor of the tower. Hank couldn't feel the movement, and even when they touched down, didn't get that odd sense of vertigo he tended to in most lifts. He touched the glass as they walked out, and it didn't quite feel like glass, he swore it rippled against his fingers.
"Major," Johnson said under his breath, catching his attention.
Hank turned away from the elevator and finally noticed that the first floor looked nothing like a prison. In fact, it looked more like a school. Children ran across the atrium as sunlight drifted in through the walls, as translucent as the glass. Plants dotted this room, as if even inside, the greenery could not help itself. The children clustered in groups around different adults, who led them away, letting them talk and laugh all the way.
None of the children wore collars, Hank noticed, although a few of the 'teachers' did. But then again, not all of the teachers. He resigned himself to being confused a bit longer, as Ian moved to speak to a tall woman with a black collar. She smiled at him and nodded, before going back to gather her group of children, a mishmash of ages, Hank noted, some as young as five, others seemed as old as twelve.
"Come," Ian said and led the way once more.
The classroom, Hank called it for wont of a better term, was yet another example of the luxury of the city – fluffy pillows were set in a circle on carpet so plush his heavy combat boots sunk into the fibers. Motion filled the walls, images and pictures that moved, of things you'd expect in any elementary school, letters and animals, and images of the city itself.
"You will stay at the back of the room and not interrupt," Ian told them.
"On these?" Hank toed one of the pillows. He'd rather have a desk and chair but really, he couldn't be picky. "I might fall asleep again."
"Then I will simply have to kick you awake," Ian said, but Hank had no idea if he were joking or not.
Hank slid onto one of the pillows, it reminded him of the beanbag chair his old roommate had in his room, soft but supported his weight. He watched the kids sink down onto their pillows, the older ones each seemed to be paired with a younger, helping them get settled in their places. He caught Johnson's eye, but Karl seemed just as confused as Hank, no help there.
"Hey," he whispered to Ian. "Is it possible we could get something to write with?" He made the motion of a stylus on a tablet. Johnson was always fanatical about taking notes, and maybe with that to occupy him, Hank could stop worrying about the doctor freaking out again. Even now Johnson pulled at the collar around his neck, worrying at it until his skin turned bright pink at the point of contact.
Ian nodded to one of the guards next to him, who left the room for a moment before returning with two gray slates. He handed them directly to Hank, who passed one over to Johnson. The slate was larger than a tablet, it fit on his lap with little trouble, but Hank had no idea how to activate it.
"Ah," Johnson murmured, pulling a stylus from the bottom of the thing. He tapped it on the face and the dark gray material lit up just like one of their tablets.
Hank followed his actions and took out his own stylus. He really didn't need to write himself, but it gave him something to do with his hands while he watched the woman at the front of the room. She had gone from group to group of the children, each set of older and younger, whispering and patting the heads of the young ones before moving to the head of the classroom. With one touch of her hand, the motion on the walls stopped, the screens turning into ordinary walls.
"We have some special visitors today, everyone," her voice was clear, ringing throughout the classroom. It made Hank think of his favorite grade school teacher, the one he had the requisite crush on. This woman looked nothing like her, with her falls of long dark hair and tilted blue eyes, never mind the collar around her neck.
The children looked back at Hank and Johnson and Hank gave a little wave and a grin.
"Aren't they awfully old to still be in white?" one of the older boys asked.
"Hush, Matthew," the teacher scolded. "Training takes however long it needs to, you know that."
Hank's hand was halfway raised to touch his own collar before he realized this. He forced it back down, gripping the very edge of the slate. It had been easy to forget that here he was marked as one of their slaves. He jotted down "white = training" on his slate, though Hank knew he wouldn't be forgetting that any time soon. How much training exactly did the Queen plan on giving him and Johnson?
"I am Sub Rosen," the woman introduced herself. She had the children go around saying their own names, each of them prefaced with that word again, sub.
The slave in the palace had called himself that, Hank remembered. Not slave, but sub. What the hell was the difference?
"And your names?" Rosen asked them.
Hank gave a little salute, half-assed since he wasn't standing at attention. "Major Henry Tappen, ma'am. Pleased to meet you all. This here is Doctor Karl Johnson."
She nodded at him. "Here the polite form of address for a sub you don't know is to add the prefix to the first name. So I would say to you, welcome Sub Henry."
He winced a bit at that, should have told them to call him Hank. "And for someone who's not a sub?" he asked. Hank was aware of Johnson scribbling at a frantic pace beside him. He had a quick flashback to the last planet they had visited, remembering the good doctor going on for a good half hour about naming conventions and kinship systems.
"Now that depends. Would anyone like to help me with the answer?" she directed that to the room at large.
Several children raised their hands, eager to be the first to answer. Hank couldn't help smiling at their eagerness.
"All right, Emma," Rosen said. "You may speak first."
The girl – probably about ten or so – leapt to her feet, clasping her hands behind her back with practiced ease. "If someone has a title, that is used first. Like Guard Ian," she flashed a grin at the group of men in the back of the room. "Or Healer Antone."
"And if they don't?" Rosen asked.
"Then it is Master or Mistress," Emma said. "Except when referring to your own master. Then it is always My Master." She sat down, pleased with herself.
"Very good. And what do doms call each other?" Rosen scanned the class and then allowed Matthew to answer.
"If they have a title, same thing. But no master can have a master, so it's always Dom and then their name."
"Almost correct, Matthew," Rosen said. "A dom is subject to his or her place in society. It is true they can't be mastered, but that isn't quite the same thing."
Hank tried to wrap his head around it. He was in trouble if he couldn't figure out what the hell to call people. "But how do you tell who's who?" he blurted.
All eyes in the classroom moved to focus on him. The little girl, Emma said, "How are you a grown up and you don't know this?"
"We're not exactly from around here," Johnson said, looking up from the slate for the first time. Hank was surprised at the gentleness in his voice, but then again, even Karl couldn't hold on to his anger in front of a group of children.
"There aren't any other cities besides Harmony," Emma said, sounding certain of herself.
"Ah," Hank said, unable to help himself, "but there are other planets, other stars. We came here on a star ship."
He caught Johnson rolling his eyes, and Hank grinned. He always wanted to do the 'take me to your leader' spiel only Morgan never let him. Granted, he was going to give it to a bunch of kids, but hell, he might as well enjoy it while he could.
The kids all burst into whispered and giggling, as if unable to believe him. "Really?" another boy said, standing up before he spoke, though his form wasn't quite as perfect as Emma's. "Like in the old stories about the big ships?"
"Those are fairy tales."
"No they aren't, my gram said they are true."
"Everyone, be silent," Rosen ordered, her voice sharp. She moved over to the wall at the front of the room and touched her finger to the screen. "If what they say is true, that they are from another planet, what do you think they need to know about Harmony?"
The rest of the morning was spent in a flurry of information, all imparted by the children, by what they felt was most important. Hank let Johnson capture it all in his notes, he spent too much time trying to pay attention to every little detail. The kids wanted him to know the layout of the city – five quarters, each ruled by a duke or duchess, except for the center district ruled by the Queen alone. They were extremely proud to be from the Royal district, though they were careful to point out that the other districts had their own charms.
"And Sub Misha lives in Duchess Claudia's district now, even though he was born here," one helpful child pointed out.
It seemed that the members of royalty and their Primary subs were something of celebrities in the city. Hank was startled when the name Misha came up, remembering the naked man with the red leather collar who had offered himself to Morgan and his team. He didn't glance at Johnson, hoping the doctor had missed the mention of the name.
"He's my favorite," another child chimed in, one of the older pre-teens. "He's everything a sub should be."
"And what's that?" Hank found himself asking.
He found several surprised faces turned in his direction.
"He's absolutely gorgeous," one girl chimed in.
"Completely loyal to his mistress, even though he's a red band."
"Honors all of the core values," this again from an older kid. "When we see him on the vids, he looks almost pure, like he's closer to soul than body."
Hank just shook his head, still not understanding, but he let the kids move on, although two got into an argument about whether Misha or Alisha was better at something. Rosen had to quell that debate quickly.
Mid-morning they broke for a snack – sandwiches on a cart with little cups of juice. Hank noticed Johnson looking longingly at the food – he hadn't eaten any of the breakfast from this morning – but he didn't touch anything on the cart. Finally he leaned over and whispered, "Karl, it's their children." Finally, Johnson let himself eat, careful to take from the same pile of food the kids had.
Around what Hank would call lunchtime, Rosen called a halt to the conversation for the fitness break. He raised his hand and told her she was going to have to explain that too. She smiled. "There is a two hour mandatory exercise period for everyone at the Schola. Physical fitness is of utmost importance."
Now she sounded like his seventh grade gym teacher.
"You'll be remaining here," Ian cut in. Of course, the kids were going outside, and Hank and Johnson were only prisoners, not exchange students.
As the children filed out, one of the boys came up to him, the one who was so taken with the idea of coming from another planet.
"You really rode here on a star ship?" he asked, blue eyes wide and eager.
"Yeah, kid." Hank smiled, kneeling to the boy's level. "The Mercury is the biggest ship in the fleet. They built it just for us to come out here and meet you."
"Daniel," Rosen's voice interrupted. "You know the rules. You cannot skip the fitness break. I'm sure Sub Henry would be happy to answer your questions when the rest of the class comes back."
Hank winced at being called 'Sub Henry' but he smiled at Daniel. "I'll be here, waiting for you to come back. Go on, get some fresh air."
That seemed to mollify the boy, who scampered after his classmates happily. Hank pushed himself to his feet, watching as Rosen straightened up the room, pushing the food cart through one of the walls that merely shimmered around the object. He walked over to her side, conscious of being watching by Ian and the other guards at the door. "Do you need any help?" he asked.
Johnson looked up from his slate and regarded them both with a single raised eyebrow. Hank ignored him, he wasn't trying to flirt with the woman, he just needed more information.
She smiled. "You can help restore order to the pillows. I honestly don't know how they manage to toss them all over the room by merely sitting on them!"
Hank laughed, and went to retrieve some of the larger specimens along the wall. He knelt next to her, fluffing his finds carefully while he thought of what to say. "Can you explain something to me?"
"I am a trainer," she said, pausing in her motions.
"You're a sub," he tried out the word for the first time, exchanging it for the other rolling around in his brain. The people of Harmony didn't like the word slave. "How can you also be…this?" He gestured to the room in lieu of an explanation.
She paused, considering his question. "I know you are unfamiliar with our ways. My master is a trainer of the dom children. It is only natural that my duties would include working with the sub children. If you mean how can I command a room while being only a sub, then I would say you haven't met very many subs."
"You know, you'd be right about that."
At the end of the day it seemed the kids were just as glad to disperse as Hank was. His back ached from sitting in the awkward position on that too fluffy pillow and he attempted to stretch out the kinks as they walked back to the elevator from the classroom. Ian had dismissed most of their little troop of guards while they were in the room, leaving only he and one other to guard them.
Hank stepped back to let a group of tweens pass in from of him, momentarily separating he and Karl from their front guard, Ian still stood behind them. The kids laughed as they moved through the opening in the tall glass wall, an opening that wasn't there this morning. Karl saw it too, and took the opportunity to drop his slate, whirl and sock Ian in the face, dropping the startled guard with a single punch, before darting for the entrance.
"Karl, no!" Hank shouted, running after him. Of all the stupid, impulsive things, of course Johnson had to attempt an escape – right into a city full of hostiles, with no way to make contact with their ship. If the man would just think for a moment…
But Hank knew Karl hadn't been thinking clearly since the moment they saw the first collar wrapped neck. Still, he couldn't let Karl run off by himself, so he followed, darting through the crowd, slightly behind the other man. Damn, Johnson was fast.
"Karl!" he choked out, unable to catch his breath. It was another few paces before Hank realized why he couldn't breathe, the collar around his neck tightened to a painful degree. Still, he kept running, stumbling only when he saw black dots swirl in front of his eyes. Karl went down in front of him and didn't get up again.
A hand on his shoulder turned him onto his back and Hank wheezed, looking up at Ian's stormy face, a wicked looking bruise appearing high on his cheek. The guard had a device in his hand, and he clicked something on it. Breath rushed into Hank's lungs, and he took a moment to appreciate that for a moment before gasping out: "Thought you said…just a training collar?"
Ian bent down close, and it was only then that Hank noticed the other man was straddling his chest. "What is training worth without discipline?" he asked.
His drill sergeant at boot camp had just made him run extra miles or take an extra round of cleanup duty. Although, Hank thought ruefully, if the man had had the ability to instantaneously choke a recruit, he wouldn't have put it past him. "Point," Hank said, though he didn't think Ian quite got it.
"Bring him to the healers," Ian called, stepping back and pulling Hank to his feet. Only then did he see the other group of guards who were carrying Karl through the street. Stubborn bastard must have run till he passed out.
Hank wished he had pushed harder, had gotten Karl to confess whatever had gotten him so spooked. Before he could follow that thought further, Ian had gripped one of his wrists tightly and slapped a cuff on it.
"I'm not going to…" Hank started.
"Shut up," Ian snapped, pulling Hank's arms around his back and securing the other cuff.
Well now, there went all the good will he'd spent the day shoring up. If Hank weren't worried about Johnson he'd smack the son of a bitch right about now. Hank didn't resist as Ian propelled him back towards the building of glass, through the crowds, still mostly children, who stared at him with shocked expressions on their faces. He wondered if they had ever seen anyone disobey. Everyone here seemed to take obedience to the extreme.
Ian brought him back into the school and back onto that elevator. This time Hank couldn't appreciate the view, despite the hazy afternoon sun hanging behind the glittering towers and spirals. He doubted he'd be seeing sunlight for a very long time after this stunt. They stopped on a floor and Ian pushed him out into organized chaos.
This must be their version of Medical, he thought, catching sight of the guards carrying Karl running into a room, waved through by a woman clutching one of the slates.
"What have you brought me, Ian?" a female voice had them both turning, to see another woman with a slate. She wore a black collar around her neck, barely visible underneath her clothing, more like the robes of a monk than anything he'd seen slaves here wear before.
"I had to use the strangle feature on the training collar," Ian said, his cheeks tingeing pink. "Can you check him out?"
She stepped up to Ian and tapped at his chin, tilting his face up. "I can fix that too."
"My fault, I deserve it," he answered.
With an ever-suffering sigh, she rolled her eyes and tilted her head. "I can see you in room five. Come."
Hank followed her, Ian still pushing him with a hand over his cuffed wrists. Once inside room five – which reminded him of every exam room he'd ever been in, chairs, monitors, and an elevated bed – Ian pulled one of the cuffs off and pushed Hank down onto one of the chairs. He secured the cuff on to the arm of the chair and Hank looked down at it, dismayed.
"Oh don't look so surprised," Ian said.
"Gonna do this one too?" Hank held out his free hand, his voice raspy.
"Don't tempt me."
The girl cleared her throat. "Is this going to be a problem?"
"He will obey," Ian said, his glare enough to make Drill Sergeant Beatty proud. "And remain still."
"Sure," Hank agreed. He wasn't about to punch out a pretty girl, not one who was going to check out his neck anyway.
She pulled a stool with wheels out from under the table and sat on it, wheeling herself in front of Hank. "I'm Sub Maddy," she told him, "acolyte to healer Antone."
"You know that really doesn't mean anything to me, right?" he croaked out.
A tapping on the door had Ian's attention. A guard stuck his head in and motioned. "Behave," Ian said, before leaving the room.
"They can get a bit overprotective," Maddy said, although that wasn't quite the word Hank would have chosen. She reached out with both hands and touched his collar, which fell into her hands without the sound of a clasp opening. More of that crazy tech, he thought. But who the hell spent that much time designing such a device? "Hmm, you have some bruising, but I can take care of that."
She pushed herself back and typed onto one of the monitors at her fingertips. "No major injury to your windpipe, thankfully. You'll be out of here in no time." Maddy pulled a device from the table, which reminded Hank of one of the skin sealers doctors used, it fit neatly into the palm of her hand, with a rounded end instead of a pointed one. "Stay still."
"Not going anywhere, sweetheart."
"Don't talk either."
He felt warmth around his throat, wherever the collar had touched and bruised, the ache eased, allowing him to breath in fully for the first time since the street. Hank swallowed, marveling at how his sore throat had dissipated completely. For once, he kept his mouth shut, and let the girl finish her task. When she pushed away with a grin, he smiled back. "Thank you."
"You'll be fine." She picked up the white collar and moved forward again.
"Do I have to?" he asked, licking his lips as he stared at the piece of white leather. It no longer seemed so innocent.
"As long as you're in training, then yes." She slipped it around his neck. "I know it seems like training goes on forever, but you'll be on the market in no time."
He reached up with his free hand and caught her wrist, stopping her from moving away. "The market?" he asked.
He got the same look the children had given him in the classroom, when he lacked knowledge in something so basic. "Humor me," he said.
"Not a literal market," she shook her head. "Looking for a master, once you've been fully trained."
"Fucking brilliant," he muttered, letting her go. She wheeled away, no longer so free with him, her hands shaking as she punched more commands into her terminal.
The door peeled open, revealing Ian and two other guards. Ian's dark eyes burned as they met Hank's. "There will be punishment," he said. "Once your friend is done with his treatment."
Hank swallowed, wondering what they were both in for. His mind went straight to that city sidewalk, to the slave trussed up and beaten in front of the crowd. "Karl's not…" he started, but he didn't have the right words for what he wanted to say. "Karl's scared," Hank said instead. "He's not thinking straight. You can't, please, don't punish him for that."
Ian just looked at him, brows furrowed. "I have no say in it. Take him to Mistress Albaney," he told the men behind him.
His arms were bound behind him again, and Hank was marched through the halls of Medical. Ian stayed behind and fear coiled in Hank's stomach. He didn't realize how much the guard had alleviated his fear, how just knowing the man's name had somehow calmed any panic he might have had about this entire situation, taken and enslaved, trained to some unknown ideal. And now, now he was to be punished.
He'd been taken as a prisoner of war exactly once, had the crap beaten out of him before rescue arrived, but Hank knew he'd been lucky. Other prisoners had been starved or forced to turn against their friends, the Confed liked pulling that shit. Punishment here on 328 had this weird sexual connotation, and Hank felt his blood run cold at the thought of being taken against his will.
This elevator wasn't as pretty as the first, no glass walls, no glamorous view, just cold steel colored walls. Hank stood stiffly, alone with his thoughts and the two silent guards. He needed to be strong, so he spent the time pushing back his emotions, thinking of nothing but the mission. If he could protect Karl somehow, he would. Hank was the soldier here, and he pulled tightly on the reins of his control. They wouldn't break him easily.
His resolve faltered the moment the doors shimmered open and the guards pushed him into this dimly lit room. Hank stumbled a bit, unable to catch his balance with his hands cuffed behind him. He looked around, the hair on the back of his neck rising at the sight of the equipment he could make out – a rack along the wall held restraints, paddles, whips, and strips of leather; there were hooks attached to the ceiling, a wooden structure in the shape of an X in the corner.
From the shadows, a woman stepped forward, two young men on either side of her, one wore a collar, the other didn't. Hank frowned, what did it say about him that a collar was now the first thing he looked for? She wore a tight leather bodysuit that didn't show a lick of skin, yet somehow left nothing to the imagination. Hank couldn't imagine crossing her, from the stern expression her face to the power in her stance and the whip in her hand.
"Mistress Albaney I presume?" Hank said.
"I suppose they don't train subs to remain silent where you come from," he could hear the distain in her voice.
"Where I come from I'm not a sub," Hank retorted.
"You're not there anymore," the boy to her right snapped. "Here you will obey our rules."
"You people sure are fond of obedience."
Albaney ignored him, she just nodded to the kid, as if giving him permission. "Remember, Lucas, this is punishment."
Right, he couldn't forget that, Hank thought. There were only three of them, he thought, backing up, his heart thumping hard. But if he resisted…who knew what else they'd do to him if he put up a fight? Who knew what they'd do to Karl?
"Zac," Lucas commanded the boy in the collar. "Strip him."
Zac turned wide eyes at the other boy. "Sir? His hands…?"
"Cut the clothes off. He won't be needing them," Lucas's voice held just the trace of a tremble, like this was the first time he had ever done this.
Huh, training, Hank thought. Perhaps subs weren't the only ones who needed training.
Lucas handed the other boy a wicked sharp-looking knife. Zac approached him carefully, as if afraid Hank would kick. "Go ahead, kid," he said gently. The boy couldn't be any older than sixteen or so. The least Hank could do was make this easy on him, and then he wondered if maybe that wasn't the point, using the innocence of this teen to keep Hank from lashing out.
Zac used the knife first, cutting down the sleeves of Hank's uniform, until the top fell to the floor in tatters, leaving only his black t-shirt behind. At the frown the sight of that engendered, Hank chuckled. "I guess I'm wearing too many clothes." Zac himself only wore a pair of loose fitting pants, his chest bare except for a single ring in one nipple.
A tiny smile appeared on Zac's face, but his didn't respond to the jibe. After slicing up the t-shirt, Zac dropped the knife, then slid to his knees, unbuckling Hank's pants. At least those would be salvageable after this whole thing, whatever they meant to do to him. It suddenly occurred to him that they might make him do something to Zac, and Hank stilled. He stole a glance at the two doms in the shadows, more sinister for their silence.
"Quickly, Zac, this isn't a performance," Albaney snapped.
"Yes, mistress," Zac said. He seemed to be having trouble with Hank's boots.
"You have to untie them first," Hank whispered, holding one foot up to help.
And then everything was off, and he stood there, swinging in the breeze, but of course, there was no breeze. The air felt stale and stiff, pressing down on him.
"Zac, bring me the rope," Lucas commanded, finally drawing close to Hank. He circled around him, and Hank stood at attention, the best he could anyway. He would not look down, he would not back away, or show any sign that this was affecting him whatsoever.
The cuff on one of his wrists came loose and Hank pulled his hands apart, rubbing at the reddened skin quickly, while he still could. Good thing too, because then Albaney was in front of him, grasping his wrists in her hands, long, sure fingers wrapped around the fragile bones. She forced his hands up with more strength than he expected, her unblinking gaze focused directly on him. Hank could not look away.
He realized her motion was all the more powerful because she did not speak. Hank saw condemnation in her eyes and he felt ashamed, with nothing more than a glance.
"The rope," she commanded, taking it from Zac who appeared at her side.
Hank knew a sailor once who could tie knots like this, the way she wrapped the soft braided rope around his wrists and made it do her bidding. He didn't even try to pull his arms apart, Hank knew nothing short of the sharp knife Zac had dropped would make work of these knots. To his surprise, she tossed the other end of the rope up overhead and Hank looked up, startled to find a hook directly overhead. "Oh fuck," he said, as Lucas caught the other end of the rope and pulled.
His arms were forced up overhead, and just when he thought that would be all, Lucas kept pulling, until Hank was forced up on his tiptoes. Only then was the rope secured somewhere out of sight. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This could only affect him as much as he let it.
When he opened them again, Lucas stood in front of him, holding some concoction of leather and metal. "So you remember this is punishment and not pleasure," Albaney said, but let Lucas do the deed, put the strange contraption over Hank's dick and balls.
"What the hell is that?" Hank snapped, looking down on himself, trying not to think about the strain in his arms and legs, never mind the cold metal around his cock.
"It's a cage," Zac offered in a quiet voice from the corner of the room where he remained.
Metal loops surrounded his prick, all attached to a leather strap that buckled just under his balls. With that contraption on, there would be no way for him to get hard, not even if he wanted to. Of course, Hank couldn't imagine getting hard under these circumstances. "Whatever floats your boat," he said.
"Zac," Albaney held out her hand.
What next? Hank thought warily, wondering what else they were going to bond or bind to his body. He saw the rubber ball two seconds before it was shoved into his mouth and secured around his head. He bit down on it, growling deep in his throat.
She slapped him across the face and he recoiled, surprised at the sudden violence. "You are not in control here, slut. You are to be the instrument of punishment."
Her words struck him oddly, but Hank couldn't ask. He could only hang there and wait for whatever torment they devised next. All he had to do was hang on; they couldn't keep this up all night, surely. Although a tiny part of his mind doubted that as truth.
He heard the sound of the elevator doors opening and then a gasp echoed through the room. Hank turned his head as best as he could and saw the guards leading Karl in, one holding him by each arm. "No," he tried to say against the gag, but of course nothing audible came out. How was he supposed to protect Karl while trussed up like a goddamn hunk of beef?
They strapped Johnson down to a chair Zac brought and positioned right in front of Hank. He met Karl's eyes and shook his head, but he couldn't speak to him, couldn't tell Johnson that this wasn't his fault. Of course, it actually was Karl's fault, but hell, Hank wouldn't say that.
"This is your punishment for your actions," Albaney bent close to Karl, speaking directly in his ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear. "For each step you took from the Academy, your friend will take a blow. His body will bear the consequence of your mistake."
"Don't do this, please," Karl pulled at his bonds, his eyes wide and panicking, tears already forming there. "Punish me, I'm the one who ran. He only came after me."
"Silly sub, this IS your punishment," she said with a wicked smile. For a moment she almost looked attractive, something beautiful in her expression, in the pride she took in her work and Hank felt sick.
"Lucas, start with crop." She stepped away and commanded her little protégé.
The kid took something long and slim from the tools on the rack, something that tiny shouldn't hurt, right? Hank tried to tell himself that right up until the crop came down smack against his ass. He reacted to the blow, and nearly lost his footing, the ropes holding him up swayed. It only made it worse for the next one, because he tried not to move, and Hank just couldn't help it.
He bit down on the gag at the sting in his backside and for a moment felt grateful for it. This way he couldn't scream, could not frighten Karl with his cries. Karl already looked stricken, his face pale like the skin of a starship, jaw trembling with the force of his attempts to hold in his sobs.
Hank lost track of time. At first he tried to count the strokes, tried to imagine how many steps they had taken in their run earlier today, to guess how much longer he had to endure the pounding against his skin. Then Lucas had given over the privilege of beating Hank to his mentor and Albaney showed him what pain meant.
She had a deft hand, and he knew she landed every blow on purpose, with the crop, then a wooden paddle, and finally a striped whip that wrapped around his chest and raised fine welts under his nipples. Hank poured out his frustration in the gag, biting down harder and yelling when he could, his toes grasping the cold floor for purchase, but with each strike, it became harder to try to stand upright, until finally he collapsed, sinking till all his full weight rested on his arms.
Albaney stopped, the whip clattered to the floor. She moved until she faced Hank, tilting his chin up with one finger. With her free hand she swiped at his cheek, and only then did Hank realize the wetness on his face had been tears – of frustration, rage, pain, who knew? Then she turned back to Karl, who still tugged at his bonds, unable to sit still; he had flinched for every single blow. Albaney held her finger to his lips as she said, "Taste his tears. See what you have wrought?"
Oh, Karl, he thought. No, no, no.
Hank lost track of time after that, so caught up in his own pain he couldn't remember when they led Karl out of the room. His entire body ached, every movement sent pain shuddering all along his nerves and he could not keep still no matter how he tried. Strong hands grasped onto him as the ropes were loosened.
"Careful, he won't be able to stand after that."
True to the speaker's words, Hank nearly crumpled to the floor, his feet cramping as he tried to stand under his own power. But he didn't fall; they didn't let him.
"I've got him," a voice said, and Hank thought it was Ian. How could it be him, though? He had abandoned Hank in the Medical wing.
Hank didn't open his eyes to check, it was too much work, and everything just felt so heavy. He may have passed out, this time.
When he opened his eyes again, Hank discovered he was out of that dark room, laid out on his belly on a soft cushiony bed. The sub from medical, the healer girl knelt by his side, running that strange device up and down his back. "Go back to sleep," she said, "You need your rest."
"You did so well," another voice whispered in his ear, and Hank was almost sure he imagined it as he drifted off to true sleep.