*“Choke on it” – a cruel phrase meant to insult
*Permanent Isolation – a rarely used punishment for the worst offenders. Those convicted and sentenced are placed in a cell just big enough for basic necessities: a bed, a toilet, and a tiny enclosed shower. They receive no human contact other than a silent guard to deliver food and other necessities. The only exception to have even limited contact is in the case of dire medical need.
*Quick-carry – like a swiss army knife. A device easily carried in a pocket. It holds multiple tools within it including two different size blades, a reasonably accurate purification tester, and several mini-tools.
Since the moment Kel returned to the shelter he shared with Corbin and let the young man know that Seren would eventually be joining them, Corbin had continually been looking for the Charge’s appearance.
Kel did his best to distract his friend by having Corbin help with the third meal preparation, but he eventually gave that up when Corbin nearly burned himself twice due to his distracted manner.
“All right, lad. Sit there and stay out the way with those anxious thoughts of yours before you do yourself harm.”
Corbin looked sheepish, knowing he’d been more in the way than a help to Kel. “I’m sorry. Did I mess anything up?”
“Of course not, and I could save it if you did.” He winked at Corbin. “I’m that good.”
Corbin chuckled. “That’s some ego you have there, bud, and I’m not anxious,” he asserted.
“Really? Well, here he comes.”
“What?! Where?!” Corbin’s head flew from side to side as he searched for Seren’s approaching form. When he didn’t see the man, his confused gaze returned to Kel.
“Gotcha,” the other man laughed.
Corbin blushed in embarrassment and a bit of anger at the feeling he was being made fun of. “Choke on it,” he said nastily, while throwing a glare at Kel.
Kel felt the verbal punch hard. It was taunt not often heard, but it was a cruel one. His laughter stopped immediately and he turned his attention to the food he was stirring. Five more minutes of low heat and it would be ready to serve. He’d pass the word along momentarily, knowing it wouldn’t take long for Group 6 to be aware their meal was ready to be served and eaten wherever they chose.
He let thoughts of the food distract him from the hurt of Corbin’s words. He shouldn’t have teased him. He’d already learned that Corbin didn’t always take teasing very well, and he shouldn’t have done it in the knowledge of his shelter-mate’s ever growing crush on Charge Seren.
He heard movement from where Corbin had been sitting, and then sensed the other man’s presence behind him.
Kel thought Corbin’s voice sounded very little-boy like. He sighed slightly. “Yes?” he answered without turning around.
There was a minute of hesitation before Kel heard, “I’m sorry”.
He sighed again and nodded once. “Thank you. I’ll try to not tease you again.”
Corbin heard Kel’s acceptance of his apology, but he felt like it wasn’t enough. He could clearly see that he’d hurt the other man, and he wished he hadn’t. Sometimes his words just came out and he didn’t stop to think about them before it was too late. Not knowing what else to do, he chose to give Kel some space and decided to walk a little bit, but not too long just in case he missed Seren’s visit, even though Kel had implied that it could be an hour or more before the Charge Pilot would be available.
He started to move through the camp, his eyes taking in the stream a short walk away and the trees off in the distance. He saw them, but he didn’t really absorb their presence. He was letting himself wallow in his self-disgust instead, thinking he deserved it. However, his lack of attention caused him to miss what was right in front of him. His knees walked right into a Traveler kneeling on the ground and sent them both sprawling.
“Oh! I’m sorry! I…ow!”
In his scramble to get off the man and the ground, he scraped his hand on a sharp rock, effectively cutting the skin of his palm and making it bleed.
“It’s ok,” a familiar voice said. “Here, let me see.”
Corbin groaned to himself. Of all the luck, he would have to fall on top of his ship Charge. Ozias righted himself with more grace than Corbin had done and reached for the Backer’s hand. Strong fingers took a gentle grip on his wrist while he used his other hand to gently pry Corbin’s fingers open from the way he’d fisted them
“I’ll have to wash the blood off to see how deep it is,” he said after a moment. “Come inside with me, Corbin. Cayson’s not here or I’d have him look at it, but if it’s not too serious I think you and I can handle it.”
For the second time that day, Corbin found himself in the shelter Charge Ozias shared with his husband and wife.
“Settle down there,” Ozias directed, pointing at a bed mat, before soaking a cloth in water. “This is water from the stream. Amrynn tested it and it’s pure, so it won’t bring any bacteria into the wound.”
He gently cleaned off the blood, slowly revealing a small but deep looking cut. “So where were you going in such a hurry?” he questioned as he noticed the cut was still bleeding and proceeded to put some pressure on it.
“I wasn’t in a hurry. I just wasn’t paying attention,” Corbin muttered.
Oz glanced at him for a moment before returning his attention to Corbin’s hand. “You don’t have to confide in me, Corbin,” he said after a moment, and his tone was kind. “But you look distressed over something. I’ll help if I can.”
Corbin shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do.”
Ozias shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. At least I know you’re not upset about having to tend plants in the Ag Unit, so that’s one thing I can cross off.”
Corbin managed a grudging smile. “Yeah, at least there’s that,” he agreed. Then, with a sigh he felt the words come out of him. “It’s just my friend…Kel. He’s a good guy, a really good guy, but he teased me and I got mad and wasn’t very nice to him.”
“Charge Kel from Culinary? I know him. He is a good guy, and not easily rattled from what I’ve seen.”
“I rattled him,” Corbin claimed.
Ozias silently directed Corbin to keep pressure on the cut while he began rummaging around in a bundler for some items. “What makes you think you succeeded in that?” he questioned.
“I said something really nasty to him, and it hurt his feelings. I know it did.”
“Did he say it hurt his feelings?”
Corbin shook his head. “No, but I saw it on his face and he got really quiet afterward. He was just teasing me in fun and I let it get to me. I know he wasn’t being mean.”
“Why did it bother you enough to say something mean then?” Ozias asked while carefully taking the cloth away from Corbin’s hand and starting to put a numbing ointment on the skin around the cut.
“I didn’t…hey, what are you doing?!” Corbin interrupted himself as his mind caught on to what the numbing ointment was usually used for.
“This needs sewn,” Ozias said unapologetically. “It’s a small cut, but it’s deep. You won’t feel anything, Corbin. I’ll make sure the cream has you numbed first. Go on now, tell me why Kel’s teasing made you react the way you did.”
Corbin knew it was a distraction tactic, but Charge Ozias was being an awfully good listener and Corbin could admit at least to himself that he wanted to get his guilt off his chest. Deliberately not looking at what Ozias was doing, he tried to explain his reaction.
“Kel’s been really nice to me—a really good friend—but I had, um, something else on my mind at the time and I guess it made me too sensitive to what he said. I was embarrassed and that made me mad, so I just said the first thing that came to mind.”
“And what was that?”
Corbin sighed, and the sound was heavy with remorse. “I told him to choke on it,” he said softly so no one outside the canvas would hear. He felt Ozias look at him and sensed the disapproval in the gaze, but the man didn’t scold, at least not directly.
“I haven’t heard that phrase since I was fourteen,” he commented almost too casually. “And I spanked Cayson hard for saying it.”
Corbin couldn’t help the sudden turn of his head to see Ozias’s face and make sure the man was serious. “Charge Cayson said it?”
Ozias nodded as he threaded a med needle. “And he’s never said it again. Do you know the origin of that phrase, Corbin?”
After a moment’s thought, Corbin shook his head. “I don’t think so. I just…” he swallowed a lump of shame. “…I know it’s considered one of the meaner things to say to someone.”
Ozias nodded, seemed to consider something for a moment, and then began telling a story while gently starting to suture Corbin’s wound. “There was a group of Arlytians that formed almost two hundred years ago. They called themselves ‘The Enlightened’.”
Corbin nodded, having heard of the group, although not knowing much about them.
“The members of that group claimed a special connection with nature, and that appealed to a lot of Arlytians since our people have always been taught to care for and respect our land…our planet. However, The Enlightened weren’t together to respect nature or people. They wanted control, not for any altruistic reasons, but simply because they saw the ability to control others as the best and fastest way for them to get whatever they wanted. The core group who started this cult found a way to blend several plants known to have hallucinogenic qualities into one very dangerous weed. They used it to trick and manipulate their growing number of followers. You see, whenever someone joined the cult, they signed a contract which basically was the signing away of their soul, but the wording of it was strange and twisted, although it sounded pretty under the influence of the drug, so many didn’t realize what they were committing themselves to.
“However, as the cult leaders grew more addicted to the power they were gaining, they began to act on some very horrific crimes, crimes I won’t go into but I guarantee your imagination couldn’t come close to some of the things they did.
“Some members of the group, during a few days when they weren’t high, saw the horror of what their leaders were doing and wanted out, but when they tried, they were caught and caged up. The leaders then used the blended plant’s properties to create hallucinogenic nightmares. It was a torture of the mind and the members suffered for days. Then, when the leaders tired of tormenting them, they took the contracts the people had signed, stuffed them down their throats and repeatedly chanted the words ‘Choke on it. Choke on it. Choke on it!’.
Appalled, Corbin couldn’t keep the shock from his eyes or expression. Ozias looked at him seriously.
“How were they stopped?” Corbin had to ask once he found his voice, hoping for some sort of happy ending.
Ozias snipped off the medical threading once he was done sewing Corbin’s hand and began to wrap the palm as he spoke. “One member, just one, managed to escape and he alerted every authority he could find. One of the authorities had connections and the news of the threat and what they were capable of went higher and higher until those with the best means to stop them got word. It’s a long and detailed story to explain, but in the end all members of The Enlightened were captured. The leaders lived the rest of their days out in Permanent Isolation for their crimes.
“Their followers, unfortunately, didn’t have a much better fate. The exposure to the plant’s effects had done havoc on their bodies and minds. Within a month of their capture, even with treatment to attempt a cure or at least reduce the damage, each one passed away.”
Corbin’s palm was neatly bandaged and Ozias proceeded to wash his hands and put away the medical supplies.
“I didn’t realize it was so awful,” Corbin whispered, his shame feeling deeper at what he had said to Kel.
“It is awful, and I’m hopeful that nothing like it will ever happen on Neveah,” Ozias said softly but fervently. “And I hope you’ll never, ever, repeat those words, Backer Corbin.”
“I won’t,” Corbin replied with just as much ardor as Oz had used.
Ozias put the last item away and faced Corbin with a stern look. “Good. Now, I have something else to discuss with you.”
That tone and look sent warning bells off in Corbin’s stomach, but he didn’t know exactly what for.
“Do you remember our talk in Charge Seren’s quarters?” Ozias asked. Corbin nodded slowly. “Do you remember what I said I wasn’t going to offer grace on anymore?”
Corbin swallowed, the promise Charge Ozias had made to him coming back with clarity. “Yes, sir. I wasn’t to be disrespectful to a Charge, or a Traveler, again.”
“What you said was definitely disrespectful, and I plan to stand by my word, Backer. However,” he said, just as sternly, but in a way that Corbin hoped might be a reprieve. “Your contempt was given to Charge Kel, not to me; nor was it said within my hearing, so I am going only on what I believe was your truthfulness to me in telling me what happened. So, I’ll offer you a choice, Corbin.”
Ozias nodded. “Your choice is to face me and my consequence based on what you’ve told me; or, you can talk to Charge Kel. Tell him your new understanding of the seriousness of what you said, explain to him the rule you broke with me, and let him decide how to handle it. Whatever his decision would be, I’ll accept it since I would be choosing to turn it over to him.”
Corbin’s head dropped. Ozias’s “However” hadn’t given as much leniency as he’d hoped. He thought honestly for a couple minutes about the choice of facing Charge Ozias’s discipline, or essentially going to Kel and asking him to punish him. Ultimately, he couldn’t bring himself to want to put Kel in that position. He wanted Kel as a friend first and foremost, and he didn’t want to strain that friendship any more than he already had by asking Kel to discipline him.
With a sigh, he met Ozias’s gaze. “I’ll take your penalty, sir.”
“Are you certain?”
Corbin took a slow breath. “Yes, sir.”
“Then come with me,” Ozias said unexpectedly. He quickly left the shelter and Corbin had to hurry to follow him.
They walked for several minutes and Corbin was severely tempted to ask what his penalty would be, but he had a feeling he already knew. Charge Ozias brought them to the furthest distance of the boundaries set up for camp where a handful of trees and bushes were growing. Ozias stepped within the grove and Corbin watched apprehensively as the man studied one of the trees.
“You may feel this is harsh, Corbin,” the Charge stated as he bent a branch toward him, pulled out a quick-carry, and used the blade to cut the branch from the tree. “But I don’t want to take away from your assigned tasks by giving you an additional service penalty, nor do I have the ability to enforce a rights restriction since you and I are in different groups during this trek. A corporal discipline seems to me to be the best option.”
Grudgingly, and only to himself, Corbin agreed with Ozias. A corporal castigation was painful and definitely memorable, but soon over. In addition, if he managed to keep quiet, no one else should know about it.
Still, it was with dread that he watched Oz strip the leaves and bark from the branch, leaving a smooth implement to be used on him. His hands were trembling slightly as Charge Ozias directed him to another tree a bit further into the grove and directed him to bend over and hold onto the trunk.
“Six, Backer Corbin,” Ozias warned before bringing the switch down.
Corbin gasped at the sting of the first stripe, then bit the inside of his cheeks to keep from crying out as Charge Ozias methodically laid on each strike. When the sixth was given, Ozias’s deep voice spoke.
“Stand up, Backer Corbin. You did well. Stay where you are, face the tree, and collect yourself.”
It was embarrassing to face the tree as he was told, but Corbin did appreciate the time to get his breathing under control and for the sting in his backside to decrease to somewhat manageable proportions. He heard Ozias moving around behind him, but couldn’t see what the man was doing.
After a short while, the Charge bid him to turn around. He was surprised to see Ozias with an armful of dry wood. The man directed Corbin’s attention to another pile of branches on the ground nearby.
“Gather them up, Corbin. I’ve no intention of shaming you. If people question the need for our disappearance, you can tell them we wanted to make sure there was enough kindling needed for the night.”
For a moment, Corbin felt his throat close. He was grateful for the gesture, and he wondered briefly if Ozias had been trained or mentored by Charge Seren, because the Charge Pilot was another one who chose not to humiliate his subordinates if he could avoid doing so.
“Thank you, Charge Ozias,” he managed to say after a moment.
The tall man smiled at him, and it was a kindhearted look. “When I’m not acting as your Charge, Corbin, feel free to call me Oz.”
Corbin nodded, once again feeling grateful as he and Oz returned to the camp.