Chapter 20
Question and Answer Session

Location: Malebolge, Outer Rim of the Saturnian Sphere
Date: Wed 15 May 121
Time: UST 1219

The name Aaron Joachim, the very concept of him was steadily fading from the mind of the contorted figure packed into a shipping crate on board the pirate ship Malebolge. The crate was not tall enough to allow the figure to sit upright nor long enough for him to lie down. It was dark, with only a few cracks that let in thin slivers of light and let out his body heat before it could build up and actually help keep him warm. He was naked, shivering, covered in grime and filth, half-starved, and bearing the marks of the pirates' special brand of hospitality. And yet the figure did not let go of that distant concept of himself. He was Commander Aaron Joachim of the Earth Union Navy and he was not about to give in.
The Seven Deadlies were hardly amateurs when it came to prisoner 'treatment'. They did not bother trying to rough him up first. No, the first thing they did was steal his sense of time, disrupting his circadian rhythm, wreaking havoc on his sleep cycle. He had no way of knowing if he had been there a week or a month.
The next thing they did was cut the biological necessities back to the absolute minimum. The Seven Deadlies had a couple medics in their employ who were actually rather skilled, though guided more by the spirit of Mengele than Hippocrates. They did just enough to ensure that he stayed alive.
What little food and water he was given always came from a tube, as if they wanted him to forget what it meant to eat and drink like a normal human being. The temperature was regulated to see that he stayed cold, but never enough to risk frostbite or hypothermia. They let him get sick, too, doling out just enough treatment to keep it from threatening his life.
Yes, they wanted him alive, needed him alive. That was why they were careful even at their most brutal. They stuck to low-tech torture methods, but they worked on a short leash. Not only did they never go far enough to ever risk killing him, but they also avoided anything that posed a risk of permanent disability. Maybe they thought that he would lose the will to live if they crippled him. Better to give him the hope that he could come out of this a whole man, use that as leverage. He was not falling for it.
If he broke, they would kill him as his usefulness would be expended. He had willingly surrendered because he knew it was wiser to suffer through some torture, wait for an opportunity to turn the tables on them, to accomplish the mission. Only they were not nearly as sloppy as he had hoped. He was growing weaker by the day, his chances of striking out against them diminishing with the steady atrophy of his muscles. Eventually he would be as good as helpless.
He did not entertain even the remote possibility of rescue. His very existence was disavowed. Even if there were people behind the scenes who would want to extract him, they had no way of locating the Malebolge. One of the first things those pirate medics did was dig out his tracker. It had been temporarily disabled for the mission, but it would have been reactivated after going so long without contact. If the pirates did not destroy it, all any rescue team would find is the tracker itself floating in space.
Someone kicked the crate, to rouse him in the odd chance he was asleep. The lid was pried open to reveal the big man himself. Pride was naked to the waist, as he usually was for their sessions. Either he simply did not want to get much blood on his clothes or it was part of some fetishistic ritual. Aaron did not want to think on it that much.
Speaking of blood, there was a fair bit of spatter on him. It seemed he had already put in some work for the day. He did not seemed to tire much, so it never really mattered what order you were in when your turn came up.
As always, Pride began by asking, "You feel like talking yet?"
As always, Aaron said nothing. In fact, he had not spoken a single word since his detention began. No smart comments. No cursing his captors. Not even any muted prayers in the long hours he was left alone in the dark.
On any other day, he would be dragged out of the crate and the fun would begin. Not today. Aaron could not see Pride's hands from his vantage point, so he had no idea what the pirate captain was holding when he dropped it in Aaron's lap.
It was a severed head. Not just any head either, but Huerta's. No, not Huerta. His real name was Trujillo, a loan from SEALS Team Twenty. He was a good man, too good to wind up like this.
"I had him crying like a little bitch in the end," Pride said. "He told me everything I need to know. Now I can kill you whenever I feel like it, but we're not done playing with you yet. When we get bored with you, then you'll die, so try to be entertaining."
That smug look on Pride's face set Aaron's blood on fire. Unlike every other time, he was all alone. Aaron could take him. Surely he still had the strength for it. What did he have to lose?
Only he did not move. He could not move. Because the tight quarters did not allow him much room, he did not try to move much. Now that he needed to move, his limbs might as well have been lead weights.
Pride laughed, as if he were expecting it. "You wanting to try something?" he asked. "I thought you might. I had them add a little something extra to your last meal. You won't be moving around any for the next several hours." He picked up the lid to the crate and said, "I think I'll leave you two lovebirds. Have fun."
He closed the lid and walked off, leaving Aaron paralyzed in the dark with a severed head for company. Apparently Pride thought that would be enough to crack him. Awful as it was, he had seen worse. Still, he knew it would do him good to think about something else.
Pride's claim of breaking Trujillo was unlikely. Unless he got it a lot worse, Aaron could not imagine him succumbing. What was more, Trujillo only knew the basic outline of the mission, none of the fine details. Pride could figure out that much on his own and obviously did or he would never have destroyed the Kanai. Lastly, Aaron did not buy the line that he was being kept alive for mere sport. If there was really no more use for him, he would be dead already.
Knowing this, however, did little to help him. Could he count on his captors to make a mistake before he became too weak to do anything? Not likely, not as long as Pride was calling the shots. But if they went out on a raid, if it was something big enough for Pride to oversee personally, maybe, just maybe...
Aaron had to bide his time. That was all there was to it. As hopeless as it seemed, the mission was not lost yet. Not while he was still alive, not while his will remained unbroken.
He heard the sound of heavy footsteps clacking on the floor. A visitor. It was too soon for Pride to be back. Straining to look through one of the cracks, he could not see anything, but the drugs he had been given made it impossible to move his head, so it was not too hard for something to be outside his field of vision.
Whoever it was plopped down next to the crate. Someone big. Aaron had a good idea who it was.
"Hey, Moe," a voice said. Karst. "You still holdin' out? Stubborn ass. You've done real good, but you're gonna break eventually. Everyone breaks. It's just a matter of time."
What was this? Karst was the last person Aaron expected to deliver the talking portion of his treatment. A runt like Grig, maybe, but not Karst. Big man like him, he should be giving Aaron the bastinado or something else along those lines, something that took advantage of his strength. Not talking.
Then again, when he thought about it, Aaron realized Karst had been conspicuously absent from all his sessions. All the other Seven Deadlies and a fair number of their flunkies had had their turn with him, but never Karst. A little odd for the one they called Wrath.
Karst kept on talking. "Think about it, man. What're ya doin' it for? The service? The Union? What's any of that shit ever done for ya? You think any of the bigwigs in Atlantis City would take your place? Not a chance, not one fuckin' chance." He paused for a moment, maybe to let Aaron digest what he had just said, before picking up where he left off. "That's why we're out here doin' this. We got fed up with the government's bullshit. Now that I think about it, it's only been a couple years, but it feels like forever. The Lice, she was gone. Half the squadron was dust, too. There were just seven of us left. It was like a sign or somethin'. We could've regrouped with the other survivors, but Sin One just said 'Let's go' and we went. Never looked back."
'Lice'? The Lysander? She went down in November of '18. The Seven Deadlies debuted that December. The pieces fit. And to think that was considered to be one of the less likely scenarios.
Karst moved in closer to one of the cracks and lowered his voice a bit. "Listen, man, I knew you were undercover from the start. Ain't no one comes to us. All the grunts you see on board, we found them, not the other way around.
"I could've killed ya back at Villareyes, back in the bar when we first met, but I took a shine to ya. I let ya score that hit on me 'cause I wanted ta take ya ta the next level. I figured if I could get ya ta taste the life, you'd get ta like it. Then fuckin' Jassa had ta go off on her own and do some diggin' on that Ling, Han, whatever the hell her name was. Fucked up my plans real nice. Still, I thought if I could get ya an' your boys ta build some cred, maybe Sin One'd give ya a chance. Your crew was ten times better'n all the flunkies we've got. But Sin One didn't go for it."
A nice story, but was it true? Karst had indeed acted rather friendly around him ever since this thing started, but it could easily be an act. Surely Pride was smart enough to play with Aaron's expectations, turn things upside-down and inside-out to trip him up. All the physical torture was just a show, smoke and mirrors to hide the real plan, an extreme game of good cop-bad cop.
If Karst was acting, he was doing a fine job of it when he said, "I didn't want it ta go down like this, really I didn't, but there's no opposin' Sin One. Look, Moe, ya might still got a chance. Agree ta come over ta our side. Tell me everythin', and I mean everythin'. If ya do that, I'll put my weight behind ya, protect ya. I'm the best man Sin One's got and I ain't never asked him for shit. I'll put my ass on the line for ya, man, but ya gotta give up bein' the good sailor, Marine, whatever ya are."
There it was. He had been getting the stick for a long time, but now the carrot finally appeared. The particulars would change from time to time and place to place, but it was always the same in essence. The magic key. The way out.
The price was always the same, too. Submission and betrayal. Such a small price to pay. Or at least that was what they would have you think.
Karst opened the lid to the crate and looked down at Aaron. Except for Pride, everyone recoiled when the crate was opened, both from the sight and the smell of their captive, but Karst was unfazed.
"Will ya do that?" he asked.
Aaron said nothing.
Karst shook his head. "I guess they did pump ya full of some funky shit. Maybe ya can't talk, but your eyes are speakin' volumes. It don't hafta be like this, Moe. Now I can't say how long ya got, but it can't be long. Stop tryin' ta be a fuckin' hero. That's a damn fool way ta go out."
Still, Aaron remained silent. Karst gave him a look that could be mistaken for sympathy. He then reached in and picked up Trujillo's head.
"Least I can do is take this out," he said. He looked at the head for a bit, almost like he was admiring the workmanship, but with no small hint of disgust. "I tell ya, Sin One can be a real sick sumbitch sometimes." Tucking the head under his arm, he picked up the lid to the crate. "You think 'bout what I said. Not like ya got much else ya can do."
He then closed the lid, muttering something under his breath. Aaron listened to his footsteps fade into the distance.
All alone once again, Aaron tried to sort out his thoughts. He could not afford to even consider the notion that Karst was an ally. It had to be part of the greater plot. Besides, even if the offer was genuine, Aaron would never betray the Union to become a pirate. The Seven Deadlies may have lost their way, but he was not so weak. He would endure, to the death if he had to.
Now if he could just get word to the outside. He knew who they were, what they were. If only the people who could do something about them knew, the Seven Deadlies would taste the justice they so richly deserved. It might just be enough to make his life and the sacrifice of his crew worthwhile.