Chapter 1
Gaps and Shadows

All at once, Dawn’s eyes opened to light, from nothingness. Her first breath was a sharp one that stung her lungs. She twisted her head around every way her neck would allow for a glimpse of her surroundings. Panic sunk deeper in her bones with every glance. Her world consisted of two and a half feet- barely enough room between circuits and levers to turn around. The pod, she remembered.

Dawn tried to remember her training. She tried to conserve oxygen. Calm. Calm, was her mantra, one she just couldn’t follow. How long had she been in there? How far from Mukurus had the explosion flung her? How would anyone ever find her, drifting through the dim darkness of Antila II? Each breath became an extreme, either deflating her chest to a tiny, dense knot, or expanding it to the point of pain against her ribcage. Faces flash before her, unlabeled memories of people she knew from the world outside her tiny pod. Hard as she tries and little as she believes, Dawn can’t remember their names.

The gruff Captain with the hollow, hoarse laugh. The researcher with a great smile he doesn’t seem to know what to do with. The man with smoldering yellow irons for eyes, haunted by his own soul. Then there’s the memory of a force, a warmth, without a face. She thinks it was a woman. It confuses Dawn more than comforts her just then, that all she can remember about her is her voice and a pink light.

“Dawn. You were a good teacher. I’m glad I met you.” The woman’s words float through her mind like her pod through darkness. Heavy as she knows they are, they remain weightless without gravity to give them meaning.

“A… Alie…” Dawn tried to remember. Warm beads squeezed themselves from her eyes, without her full understanding. “No, damnit!” Dawn cocked her head back in frustration. What am I doing? She stopped herself a second before slamming it down. She turned on her side to curl up and consider her very few options.

It took a few minutes, but Dawn eventually settled on two real choices. Float through space, indefinitely and bereft of memory, or jostle her brain to remember. To remember the people that’d saved her life, the reason she was even near Mukurus when it exploded. Without it, she was left only with maddening mystery and oxygen for a few days. Dawn sat up, breathed deep, and arched her head back once again. Either she would remember, or she’d cause a pod malfunction that would remove the need to. Dawn swung her head down like a ball-point hammer, straight for the console of her pod. The thunk sent her very tiny world to black.

*

Dawn’s teeth clenched tight. A single bead of warmth trickled down her sore forehead. The surface against her, however, was ice cold. Too cold to be the console of her tiny pod. She opened her eyes instead to a dull red stone. Dawn stepped back, bewildered to watch a streak of deeper red drip down from the dent her head had put in the clay wall. The pod had vanished from around her. It had been replaced with a different world, one big enough for her at least to stand. She could even walk three paces in any direction. Dawn turned around to survey the red stone room, which was somehow both familiar and a complete mystery.

A cot sidled up against the rough back wall, with an energy-screened window over it. A toilet perched in wait for her relief in the opposite corner. A thick iron door marked the exit, a few inches left of her bloody head-dent. It had no handle.

“Where...” Dawn muttered to herself. Her feet carried her on the wind of the thought, to the cot. She knelt on it to peer through the window. Ruby dots plunked down on the sheets around her knees, soaking outwards like bloody little explosions. On the other side of clear energy waves that she knew better than to touch were traces of a landscape she never thought she’d see again.

Barren, crimson clay stretched out from the outer wall of her cell to a rich, azure body of water. From the look of it, the lake stretched all the way around the building, which was on an island. A few thick trunked trees with a peeling skin of bark on the outside stuck up from the arid, red soil here and there on the island. Beyond the far shore of the lake, however, the forest was dense. The shadow of the canopy was too deep to see past. Dawn bent down to angle her view up at the sky. The translucent beige tinge of a terradome veiled the stars, and she could only barely make out the shimmering blue streak of the SkyLine high above.

“Mars… I’m on… the hell is going on here?” Dawn asked, of any force that knew. Even she might have the answer, she realized, if she could only remember something- anything! That boiled a pot of frustration deep in her gut. She’d never planned to return to her home planet. Now she was in some sort of prison from the looks of it, and she couldn’t even remember why. But, from what Dawn remembered about prisons, there had to be at least one other person there with her to hold the keys.  “Hey! What the hell? Anyone! Where is this?” she called out.

“Settle down!” another woman’s voice rasped. Dawn stiffened upright to listen more carefully. She had to pinpoint where it had come from.

“Or what?” Dawn challenged, just as loud.

“Or you’ll bring the coats, jackass! What’s wrong with you?” hissed the other woman. The longer she spoke, the clearer a chord of recognition plucked in Dawn’s brain. It wasn’t the same woman who Dawn dreamed of as a pink warmth, but it was someone she knew. She tracked the woman’s voice to a nearby wall, where the tiniest crack near the ceiling let her voice in.

“Coats?” Dawn answered, lower.

“The nurses! You… oh God, you’re having another episode, aren’t you?” asked the woman. Episode? The word sent a twinge of heat through Dawn’s muscles. She resisted the inexplicable urge to put her fist in the wall to say,

“If I was, would I ask your name?” The woman sighed long and loud.

Yes. Great. They’ll be here any minute now, no matter how quiet we are,” she said.

“And what would you tell me?” Dawn asked, shaking off any shivers about the arrival of the nurses. Is this an asylum? she wondered, though she knew better than to handle more than one mystery at a time.

“What?”

“Your name,” Dawn explained.

“Morgan,” the woman told her. Dawn’s forehead scrunched, as if with a will of its own.

“I… don’t like you very much, do I?” asked Dawn. A bark of laughter escaped Morgan before she answered.

“I would imagine not. I’m the one who brought you here,” she told Dawn.

“Wha- why?” Dawn stammered. Her knuckles crackled as they tightened into a sore fist. It was that pain of recent use that stopped Dawn from giving into the urge to abuse rock. Memory or not, she wasn’t one to repeat the same mistake twice.

“I tried to use your brain as a bargaining chip to involve myself in a certain… program. Should have known better than to try and manipulate that bastard. He… she… whatever it is now always finds a way to come out on top,” Morgan told her. Dawn stifled the urge to scream when the distant tap of footsteps tickled the inside of her ear.

“What do you mean, you used my brain? Is that why I don’t remember anything?” Dawn demanded.

“No- I turned you over for interrogation. About the outlaw, Drogan. About what happened on Mukurus. You gave it all up, no problem. The memory loss is a side effect of our… treatment,” Morgan did her best to explain with what little time they had. The footsteps stomped louder each second.

“Our? I thought you turned me in?” Dawn struggled to wrap her mind around.

“And I was fool enough to think he’d let me come and go as I pleased,” Morgan laughed at her own apparent stupidity, “We both know things he doesn’t want going around. Being captive members of this… research was a perfect arrangement for him.”

“I don’t know anything!” Dawn screamed when she heard the steps stop outside her door.

“You just don’t remember,” Morgan amended, “Try asking him. You told him everything.”

Who?” Dawn shrieked. The iron door swung in, slamming over the rock where Dawn had left an imprint of her head. Morgan fell silent. Three silhouettes stepped through a dull light into the room with her. Long white coattails billowed behind two women with long, teal gloves on. The man between them bore a sleek suit jacket. Beneath was a dark, solid purple dress shirt and a checkered violet tie. His lips curled into a smile as he spoke.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked.

“If you thought I did, would you ask?” Dawn countered. One of the long-coated nurses moved in immediately. Between two fingers, she pinched a long-needled syringe. The man in the suit stopped her from going closer with a gentle hand. He took the lead, stepping within a foot of Dawn’s cot. She flattened against the wall to put the comfort of distance between them.

“Amazing… you’re virtually the same, with or without any memories,” the man marveled. He reached into his jacket for something. Dawn tensed up immediately, ready to strike. The man moved in, lashing something from his pocket. Dawn launched a kick, which he easily sidestepped. The man bent to offer his hand, and a napkin from inside his jacket. “Marcus Brass. I’m here to help you.” Dawn glared at the napkin for a few hostile seconds, then ripped it away from Marcus.

“Why don’t I remember anything?” Dawn demanded while she dabbed the blood away from the gash her forehead. Marcus made his cautious way over beside her. “May I?” he said, motioning for an empty spot on the cot. At Dawn’s uneasy nod, Marcus even turned his back to plop down beside Dawn.

“I suspect it’s a side effect of your treatment,” he said, “You’ve been having periodic fits of acute amnesia since you’ve entered the most recent stage. Only in withdrawal from your injections,”

“Treatment?” Dawn echoed.

“When you came to us, you were oxygen deprived and starving from spending too long in an auxiliary pod. There was… significant damage to your brain and lungs. The only chance we had at saving you was to incorporate you into a test program for new medicine,” Marcus explained.

“The only chance? Hah! I don’t even care about Dawn and I can’t listen to your bullshit!” Morgan’s voice roared in laughter through the cracks in the wall. Marus cocked his head to one of the nurses. In the eerie light from the terradome outside, Dawn thought she caught a glimpse of a seam along the ridge of his jawbone. It looked almost like his face was a mask.

“I think Morgan is due for her own treatment,” he said to her. The nurse turned on her heel, and left to deal with the cackling old woman immediately. Dawn balled up her fist, instantly on edge at how quickly Morgan was stifled. Marcus reached into his pocket again. Dawn lunged for him, only to be frozen mid-strike. A chill spread through her blood from the stinging spot where the other nurse had stuck a needle in her neck. The injection stole muscle function from everywhere but her lips.

“What… what do the injections do?” Dawn asked, when she realized she could still speak.

“That one calms you down,” Marcus told her. When his hand slid out from inside his suit, he had a syringe of his own. This one was thick steel, with stripe of glass down the middle to monitor what was inside. Dawn’s eyes couldn’t widen, with her eyelids immobilized, though they bellied her fear nonetheless. She watched a formless black tar, something between gas and liquid, swirl inside the syringe. “This is the one that helps.”

“What… is it?” Dawn shuddered. Marcus leaned her forward with a hand on her shoulder. The nurse lifted the back of Dawn’s shirt and applied a cold swipe of alcohol. Dawn’s insides shuddered as a quarter-inch thick spike of steel pierced the bottom of her spine. She growled and whimpered while Marcus injected her nervous system with formless darkness.

“Dear Ms. Redding… I’m hoping, at the end of this, you’ll be able to tell us. The only way out of this treatment for you, I’m afraid, is through it,” Marcus told her. There was something almost like sympathy in his voice.

“How…” Dawn tried, finding the words suddenly harder to articulate, “How long have I been here?”

“Captain Dawn Redding: patient 07 in the Slayer Program since the destruction of Mukurus eight months ago,” Marcus recited to her from a clipboard the nurse handed him. With the white-coated woman’s help, he laid Dawn down on her cot, and even tucked her in under the covers. Marcus and the nurse headed through the door. He held it ajar for just long enough to tell her, “I would love to stay longer, but I have a meeting tomorrow at an Earth consulate with a task force to do what you couldn’t.  Don’t worry. It will all come back to you.”

Copyright Mind of Khan Studios 2019