Orinia shuddered as the last critter scuttled down her leg and onto the floor. Her skin still tingled where it had crawled over her, and a trickle of blood seeped from the hole it had left in her arm.
To call them critters was perhaps incorrect, but the name was all she could think of to give the palm-sized eight-legged clockwork devices that crawled over her once a week. Sometimes it was less often, sometimes more. They pricked her skin with their needle proboscises to drain her blood and carry it in their glass abdomens back to– him.
The– thing crossed the floor, hurrying up the plank with a tick-tick-tick to the platform where it stopped and waited for him to gather it up in his leather-gloved hands, unscrew the glass vial and pour the contents into a metal flask. Then he sent the spider-like device off to the cleaning machine where hot water flushed it free of her blood, leaving it hygienically spotless for the next time.
He slid the flask into another machine, turned a few dials and lit the flame. A conveyor-belt moved the flask farther into the machine where it was super-heated before being moved even deeper into the mechanics, the contents pummelled by heavy pistons. The process would repeat several times, until a deep red crystal, about an inch round, popped out the other end.
“Here.” He stood before her, brandishing the hand of a young woman little more than half her own age. “Take it.”
“Please don’t make me, Braph.” Sometimes he would listen to her.
“You’re drawn. Take her hand.”
“Please.” She sounded weak, pitiful, even to herself.
She flinched and, holding back tears of fatigue and sadness, allowed him to place the girl’s hand hers. He brought her other hand over to cup the girl’s hand top and bottom, gently at first until her reflex kicked in. Her grasp tightened around the slender fingers.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
The girl stood, unmoved. They had done this so many times it should have affected Orinia as little as it did the girl, but she could never get used to it.
The heat began in her hands, then moved up her arms and through the rest of her body. She felt her arteries and veins refill. Her skin regained its healthy glow.
The girl stood calm before her. The lips seemed to lose their ripeness first, becoming dry and the lines becoming deeper. Then the rest of her started to grey and she swayed on her feet.
Orinia’s grasp released and she sat back in the chair. She felt energized. Oxygen coursed through her body. She tugged at the restraints over her forearms, and shuffled her ankles against their shackles, but there was no point. It mattered little how healthy she was, she would never be free of those.
“Awa.” A small voice echoed around the room. The child was no more than a year old yet the concern in his eyes was evidence that he understood the gravity of the situation before him.
He didn’t recognize his mother, and no wonder – Orinia hadn’t seen him since the day he’d been born. Now she saw him, she felt strangely detached; probably because he was the spitting image of his father.
“Shit! I told you not to bring the child! Get out!” Braph grasped the young woman’s shoulder, spinning her back to the door, and gave her a shove. “Go!”
The woman moved through the door in a mindless shuffle, stooping to guide the boy from the room. She looked as dazed as Orinia had just been feeling, with little oxygen making it’s way to her brain.
“Stupid girl,” Braph cursed under his breath. Turning back to Orinia, his whole demeanour softened and he almost smiled. “I don’t know why you worry so much. You know she will be fully replenished in but a few hours, just as you would have, if I’d left you.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because…” He walked up to her and, pulling a glove from his hand, pushed a curl of hair behind her ear. It pinged back to her temple as soon as his hand was clear. “Because, I can’t wait that long to touch you.”
With a deafening hiss, the condensing machine shuddered to a stop.
Braph’s smile broadened. “It’s ready.”
He walked behind Orinia to the machine and she heard the distinctive clicks and squeals of him retrieving the crystal from the machine.
“Woo!” He exclaimed in a high voice. It sounded as though he had fumbled. “It’s a hot one.” He stepped in front of her and brandished the crystal before the light. “Perfect. Not a blemish.”
He flicked the release on the bracelet he wore on his right wrist and the old crystal fell to the floor, its song refracting around the room. Its dull pink a stark contrast to the rich red it had been a little over a week ago. He clicked the new crystal into place, closed his eyes and breathed deep, a look of bliss enveloping him.
“I wish you could experience this. Your own power, condensed. It’s a magic all its own, never mind what I can do with it.”
“I suppose if you let me try the device–”
“Tck, tck. You know I’m not that stupid, love.” His look combined the adoration a father might have for his daughter with the warning he might aim at her date. “Besides, I don’t think you could make use of it. We’re different, you and I, in the most perfect of ways. Music?”
Another of his inventions: the music machine, or whatever he called it. He slid a flat disc from its sheath and placed it on the turntable. Then he turned a dial, and lit the flame. She thought it must run on gas. His entire house seemed to. She knew inch-thick pipes ran to the kitchen. He had gas-heated bathing water, too.
He lifted the metal arm and guided the diamond to the groove. After a few crackles and pops the music began. String instruments; their bows drawn back and forth with a precise rhythm designed to quicken the heart. Percussion soon accompanied them. It was drama audiolised. Even Orinia felt herself swept away by the airy experience. It sounded like a whole band were playing, but it all came from a set of tubes, amplifying the vibrations recorded in the disc, as he had once explained it. She still didn’t understand it. But, you didn’t have to, to enjoy it.
He crouched by her feet, resting his head on her knee. Like a child.
He removed the other glove and placed his hand by his head, on her thigh. Like a man.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” He closed his eyes, allowing himself to experience the music without the distractions of the room and all its contraptions. Orinia did the same.
It was beautiful, in a way. Sometimes the music jarred, made her cringe, but it also tugged at her heartstrings with its minor progressions, and brought her anger to the surface in its urgency. It was exquisite the way it toyed with the very marrow of one’s being.
The fingers on her thigh began to move. Intricate circles at first, little more than a tickle. And then they began to explore, to rove.
“Your skin is so soft,” he said.
Orinia silently pleaded with him to talk no more. If she closed her eyes she could create the illusion that she was with someone she loved, somewhere she wanted to be. With her husband; her daughter in the other room… How old would she be now? Nine? Ten? Orinia squeezed back a tear. No, best not to think about it.
The hand squeezed her inner thigh, then continued its circular massage beneath her dress.
A shuddering sigh escaped her lips.
“You like that, hmm?” She could hear the smile in his voice.
“It feels… nice.” She couldn’t lie. On a purely physical level, it did feel good.
He kissed her other thigh.
“What would you have me do?” he asked. “Am I doing enough?”
She looked down at him. He looked up at her with eyes that would melt any heart. Any heart not chained in his chair, that was.
“I would do anything for you, you know that. Right?”
“Anything.” He bit into her skin playfully, nibbling gently, then kissing where his teeth left marks.
“Please. Return me to my daughter and my husband.”
“That wasn’t what I had in mind.” He gave a cheeky smile as if she’d told a joke, and clambered up to kiss her beside her mouth. He never kissed her on the lips. Then his eyes lit up and he beamed at her. “I could find her.” He nodded with excitement. “I could bring her to you.”
“No!” She hadn’t meant to shout. His face clouded. “I’m sorry. But, please. Don’t bring her here.” The thought of her daughter living as she did was overwhelming. She would rather never see the girl again than see her in these chains.
“Oh, I see,” he said and leaned in to peck her on the cheek. Then he smiled at her again. “I wouldn’t replace you with her, you know. I could never stop loving you.” He unclipped her wrists and offered his hand to guide her from the chair. The chains at her ankles allowed her a few metres leeway.
She swallowed down her repulsion at his assumption and curled her fingers in his. He guided her to the rug that would be all that separated her from the cold stone floor, parted her legs and leaned through them to kiss her cheek once more.
A hand brushed aside a loose fold of her neckline, revealing the top of a plump breast. He trailed his fingers over it and planted a gentle kiss there, then his lips followed the line of a visible vein, up to her neck, back up to under her ear, where his shuddering breath sent a strange mix of desire and revulsion through her.
A certain closeness had evolved over their years together, but she would never fully understand this man who could not kiss her properly, could not look at her breasts, and could not look at any of her when he entered her.
He pressed his head against her shoulder and convulsed against her, within her, giving voice to his gratification with breathy grunts. Orinia let her hands trail over his still-clothed back, and let herself feel the strange love she had for this man. She curled her toes, scraping them over the stone floor before wrapping her legs about him.
Tomorrow, they would sit across from each other at the breakfast table like an old married couple. He would brush her hair for her and help her tie it up off her shoulders. They might even enjoy a game of checkers.
But in that moment they were not that couple. He was not her captor and she his source of power. In that moment, they were two bodies deriving physical satisfaction from one another.
Sated, he withdrew and turned from her to refasten his clothing and pull his gloves back on. She let herself lie, unadjusted, rumpled and dirty, a testament to their joining. Let him pretend. She wouldn’t.
* * *
Sound rang through the house. Clatterings and clamberings. Thuds and crashes.
The door burst open and in rushed eight men. Turhmos soldiers.
“No!” He stepped in front of Orinia. “You can’t have her.”
“By order of President Carlile, we are taking possession of the Syaenuk for the state of Turhmos.” An officer stepped forward with a paper. Braph swiped it aside.
“I sold you the design. It’s not my fault you can’t get the results!”
“It is when you keep the Syaenuk to yourself. You know the Aenuks don’t give the same power.”
“But she is the only one! She can’t possibly fuel an entire army.” And he was only one man. “Let me manage her. Let me keep her well,” he pleaded.
Other soldiers cut Orinia’s chains and Braph acted.
He kicked, he punched. He was no trained fighter, but his Karan strength and speed gave him some edge, and the crystal-powered device gave him even more. Calling on the power from his device, he fired several soldiers back out the door into the other side of the corridor, with little more than a casual fling of an arm. More men swarmed in and Braph continued to fight. But they were trained men, and he was outnumbered.
They clutched her within their ranks. She looked scared, her eyes wide and shining, her beautiful brunette hair fluffed up and frizzed. Braph could only look at her with pity and an apology as he tried to get to her. But he could feel the power draining already, the crystal dulling. He was failing.
“Let me care for her…”
The soldiers that still stood pushed and pulled her through the door, others picked up their fallen comrades. Orinia was gone.
“Please. Treat her kindly. Treat her well. Please…”