The Day She Started Counting

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Stepphana’s fingers wrapped pleasantly around the handle of her father’s electric whip as she stepped onto the porch to look out on the Minmatar working the strawberry fields. She gave a quick glance around to make sure everything was in order, just as Daddy had taught her, then went back to the two-meter lightweight rod, held tightly in her sweaty little hand. Normally she was not allowed to touch this weapon, but Dad was out drinking tonight.

She checked the datapad in her pocket and stepped onto the lawn. She swung the whip. The shaft glowed and rumbled, and as she ended her swing, it emitted a sharp crack that echoed against the hills. The slaves paused suddenly to look, and she smiled to them, imagining herself racing to one and striking him to engage the shock. He would scream and convulse, maybe wet himself, but there would be nothing he could do about it… because they were Minmatar and she was Amarrian, and they all knew it. Even here, on her father’s farm, where everything worked backwards, where the slaves possessed a strange confidence and power, even here they would need to submit to any Amarrian, even a twelve year old girl.

“They’re human beings, just like you or I,” Daddy would say. “They feel just like we do…”

But at school they told her that the Minmatar have the psychology of animals… they can be people, but still have the psychology of animals.

She cracked the whip again, lighter this time. She stared at the tip and held out a finger, daring herself to touch it.

“A fun toy…” said Dolain, the nearest slave as he sat in the grass enjoying a lunch of bread, cheese and berries. “Don’t zap yourself… it’ll knock you out cold, Little Girl.”

She turned and raised the stick threateningly, and imagined herself cracking it and screaming at him to get back to work. But they knew she’d never do such a thing. Dolain deserved his break. All the slaves deserved a break. They were working harder than they had for their original masters, and without complaint.

A part of her wanted to whip them into shape anyway, as wrong as she knew that to be.

She smiled and the Minmatar shook his head playfully.

Stepphana wandered onward, but as she stepped to the edge of the strawberry field, she felt a frantic vibration. Terror spread through her and a wave of darkness shot from the datapad in her pocket to encompass the normally peaceful farmland.

The alarms began to sound.

No… this can’t be happening…

She put the whip under her arm, careful to avoid touching herself with the tip, and dug for her datapad.

“We’ve got a security breach!” Dolain shouted, holding his own datapad and leaping to his feet, his food dropping from his lap. “Everyone! Get in The Hole, now!”

Stepphana pulled up the video feed that had triggered the alarm and saw a single police officer walking down the driveway. No vehicle, which meant he was able to sneak past the outer security systems and make it almost within sight of the house without being detected.

All would be lost if they found out what was going on here.

Dad had told her what to do in this situation. He’d told her again and again. She knew exactly what to do, but still felt the panic rising. The shaking began near her heart, and she felt the tears coming to her eyes as she’d promised they wouldn’t.

It didn’t matter what she was feeling as long as she did what she needed to do.

Pulling the whip from under her arm, Stepphana dropped the datapad and swung the whip with all her strength, pulling back in mid-swing to emit the deafening crack that would awaken even the most distant slaves. “Get in The Hole!” she screamed with the practiced voice of a farm-girl who knew how to communicate from kilometers away without the aid of modern technology.

She ran into the field, followed closely by Dolain, ignoring the strawberries under foot. Waving her arms and cracking the whip, she screamed until every slave was racing toward the house. “Leave the equipment! Just Go! Go! Go!”

Stepphana felt her heart pumping, as though echoing through her body. Her face became hot and she had to shake the tears to see the scenario unfolding.

As the majority of the slaves passed, she turned back toward the lawn and raced back to grab the datapad off the ground and take another look at the security cameras.

The officer was now running.

“Oh, shit,” she heard Dolain exclaim, and despite the danger of the situation, the word pulled her attention away from everything. Perhaps they really are just animals…

“He’s onto us,” Dolain continued with a shaking jaw.

The last of the slaves were now crossing the lawn and Dolain started running again toward the side of the house and into the basement. Stepphana came up behind them, put her datapad back in its pocket and struggled to retrieve the keys from the loop on her belt.

Dolain was the last to enter the basement, and at the final moment he turned to ask, “You know what to do, right?”

“Get in!” She screamed as she pushed him with one hand and threw the electric whip behind a water barrel with the other. She grabbed the door and threw it shut, forcing Dolain to jump inward.

She put her foot against the door to force it into place and with trembling fingers, slipped the key into the lock to secure it shut.

As she turned, she saw the officer come out of the trees, still running down their driveway. He stopped suddenly and gazed across the strawberry fields… scanning.

Then he looked straight at Stepphana as she pulled the keys from the lock and slipped them into her pocket.

The officer walked toward her. “Stepphana!” he shouted. “Hold right there please!”

How does he know my name?

Because he’s done research.

Her father’s words rang through her mind. “‘No’, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Do you have a warrant’ – do not say anything else. Nothing. They can’t enter without a warrant or your permission. Just hold onto that and say nothing else.”

But Daddy had usually had a few drinks when he would tell her such things, the alcohol making him suddenly, inexplicably paranoid.

The officer walked briskly toward her and she crossed the lawn to meet him halfway. “What were you putting in the basement?” he asked, skipping the hello as he walked past her toward thebasement door.

“Nothing,” she replied.

“What were you putting in the basement, little girl?”

“My bike.”

“Can I see it?”


He reached the basement door and ran his fingers over the lock. “I’m gonna need to take a look in here.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“What would a little girl know about search warrants?” he asked.

“I know you need one.”

“So what does your father have in here that’s so important that he needs to teach his daughter about search warrants… hmmm?”

Stepphana simply stared back.

“I see someone trampled your strawberries… looks like a bunch of people… or Minmatar… as though they were running from something.”

Stepphana shook her head, hearing Father’s voice repeating, say nothing, say nothing, say nothing.

“What do you think about these rumors that your father is stealing and releasing slaves? Have you ever heard that, Honey? Some people say your Daddy is involved with organized crime…”

“They’re just rumors, nothing more.”

“That sounds like a pre-rehearsed answer… now look, Stepphana, you know I’m a police officer. I’m the good guy. You don’t need to lie to me. I’m here to protect you. If your father is truly harboring escaped slaves, then you’re in serious danger. They escaped because they don’t understand right from wrong and any one of them could lash out suddenly and cut your throat. I know you think of them as people, and I understand that–most of them really are people as far as I’m concerned, but some of them, especially the type that would spit on our society and run from their protectors–those Minmatar are closer to animals. They’re a danger, Stepphana, a serious danger.”

Stepphana shook her head.

“I understand you and your father don’t believe in certain aspects of our culture… you think it’s wrong to hold these Minmatar. I respect that, and it even makes sense to me, but disagreeing with the law doesn’t give anyone the right to break it. That’s a fundamental aspect of society, and you have an obligation to respect that. Please, Hon, I need to have a look in the basement. That’s all, I promise. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”

Stepphana shook her head again, trying to focus, her heart echoing as loudly as the officer’s voice. “I need to see a search warrant,” she croaked.

“Why are you crying?” he asked. “Here, come on…” He gently put an arm on her shoulder. “I’m here to help. I’m only trying to do my job. You’re not in any trouble, Stepphana, I promise you that. We believe your father is a very confused individual and we want to help him.”

She looked up at the Amarrian officer and wanted to believe him. Everyone in the real world agreed with him. Minmatar were not like real people. They needed to be protected because they can’t control their own animal instincts. They need Amarria to become human. They all said that. Her father and his friends were the only ones who felt otherwise.

Somehow it was Dad she had chosen to believe, and despite the overwhelming majority of people who disagreed with him, his perspective still made more sense… but sometimes–or often times–she questioned it.

The officer patted her on the shoulder. “It’s alright, you’re not in any trouble,” he repeated.

She felt a hand at her side, and glanced suddenly down, seeing another tear splash from her eye to land on the officer’s hand now slipping into her pocket. His fingers clasped around the keyring.

She screamed as his hand retreated, the keys dangling in his finger. He tossed them into his hand and looked down on Stepphana with a smirk. “Thanks. I knew you’d see it my way. Thank you for your cooperation.” He bowed slightly.

“No!” she screamed, grabbing for the keys. Both hands clasped around the officer’s wrist, but he simply held, the keys clutched firmly in his huge adult hand. She pulled frantically but his hand wouldn’t budge.

“Don’t cry, Stepphana. I’m just doing my job… It’s okay, you did the right thing.”

“No!” she screamed as he began testing the keys in the lock. “You can’t go in there!”

“Sorry, Honey, you gave me the keys and I clearly heard you give consent to enter.”

“No, I didn’t!”

“Who’re people gonna believe? The eleven year old daughter of an alcoholic slave-thief, or a trained police officer with a perfect record?”

“I’m twelve,” she replied, but immediately regretted saying anything.

“Ah, yes, I apologize. I forgot. We started this investigation a while ago.” The officer flipped the lock and swung the door open.

“No!” she sobbed, falling backward into the grass.

She needed to call Dad. That was the only option now. He hadn’t prepared her for this. She pulled her datapad from its pocket and struggled to focus on the screen to punch in the code.

“Sorry, Honey,” said the officer as he took the pad from her hand. “It’s not going to make a difference anyway.”

Everything went black, her eyes forced closed as she heard a scream vibrating involuntarily from deep in her throat. Her head sank into the grass and she cried.

Why had he done this to her? The first time Father had ever left her alone with the slaves. She’d memorized everything and he had assured her she was ready and responsible enough, and assured her again and again that she’d never need to use the things she’d learned.

“Don’t see any stolen slaves so far,” she heard the officer saying.

Stepphana forced herself up and crawled to the door so that at least she could see what was happening.

She wiped tears on the shoulders of her dress, back and forth, right to left. Each time her eyes cleared for just a moment before blurring again.

Then, in an instant, she saw the water barrel. Behind it sat the electric whip.

It called to her.

The one thing that could make a kid feel big.

If she could just take him out for a minute or two… just zap him real quick, just long enough to call Dad, to make him quit drinking so they could figure out what to do, or long enough to talk to the slaves. They were Minmatar, but they were adults, and they would have ideas. Later she could tell the police that she was confused. They wouldn’t throw her in detention for too long. Dhe could claim panic… momentary insanity… that she didn’t know what was going on…

She felt the breath pumping in and out of her chest and her jaw tightening in fury. She crawled, pulling her dress as it dragged through the grass and dirt.

Reaching the barrel, she fumbled blindly and felt her hand close around the tip, which she had previously been terrified to touch. Her hand crawled down the shaft to the handle. As her fingers closed around the rubber grip, her vision cleared. As she stood, she asked herself why she had been crawling.

The officer was moving furniture inside. It wouldn’t be long.

“So what am I looking for again–an indent–no wait… I see a missing brick.”

Stepphana came to the edge of the house where a little crack allowed her to peer inside to see the officer examining their hidden door. He gazed into the open brick with a little flashlight. He glanced nervously over his shoulder, as though suspecting the very thing Stepphana was planning.

She moved toward the door and peered in.

“Looks like a keypad to me… subtle, but still looks like a keypad. What’s the code?”

To Stepphana’s horror, she heard the response crackle through his radio, the very code her father had changed and forced her to memorize just a month ago, even though she already knew his password pattern.

She tiptoed down the rickety steps into the basement as the officer typed in the code. A moment later she heard the familiar rumble of the opening wall.

“Boo-yah,” he called. “We have secret trapdoor.”

Stepphana dashed forward, the weapon held in both hands like a spear. The policeman spun at the last moment, just before she wedged the tip into the side of his uniform. Her thumb slapped the handle blindly, and finally found the trigger.

The officer screamed momentarily, but the sound morphed into a gagging croak. Stepphana jumped to the side as his trembling legs gave way and his massive body slammed to the concrete floor.

He gagged, coughed and grunted. A trembling hand came up, his fingers darting back and forth wildly.

She looked back into the tunnel now opening into their so-called “secure” place, to see several slaves at the end, running toward her, eyes wide.

She looked back at the officer, his face contorting violently, and saw his hand struggling toward his gun.

He was supposed to be unconscious.

With every passing moment she knew he was gaining composure, and his hand was getting closer to his weapon.

The tears filled her eyes again and her arms shook, as though she were about to fall into the same shock as the policeman. She had no choice but to act, or she knew she’d become a little child again, unable to do anything but sob in the corner.

She gripped the weapon and drove it downward into his neck. He screamed a high-pitched wail as her thumb depressed the trigger. She pressed with all her might as though the whip was too stupid to know she wanted to administer a shock and imagined the button depressing hard enough to snap the metal casing.

He continued screaming his terrified cry, in one long, continues note, suppressing all other sounds.
She drove the weapon deeper and deeper, seeing the blood and sweat sizzling and splattering around the tip and smelled something like rancid meat on a barbeque… a smell that seemed to communicate death itself.

But still the screaming continued, so she drove the electricity deeper and deeper, and the stress in her clenched fingers traveled slowly up her arms and down her spine. Her knees trembled and threatened to break.

As she felt her own blood pumping through the veins on her forehead, she met the officer’s eyes, steady and unblinking, but piercing, as though pleading for mercy.

Hands were suddenly behind her, dragging and pulling. The whip wrenched from her grip and she felt the slaves around her, pulling her away.

“He’s dead, Stepphana!” someone shouted beside her but from a great distance.

Still, the screaming continued, a sound emanating directly from the experience. The officer’s eyes remained open and staring.

Somewhere her lungs registered a lack of air, like they would implode, and she saw their insides sealing shut and sticking together.

Still her screaming would not stop as she pleaded with herself to close her mouth and take a breath.

But she could not.

The world began to distort into something evil and distant as time and space pulled inward, as though New Eden Herself would crush her.

As her body gave one last desperate cry for oxygen, she fell into blackness.

______          ______          ______
Chapter 2
          Steini rapped his fingers on the bar in time to the music as the beautiful baretender slid another shot in front of him. “What?” he asked, looking at the gentleman next to him.
          “Hundred year old special blend,” said the bartender with a glint in her eye.
          “Drink up,” said the man, his fingers wrapped around his own shot glass.
          Steini put the glass to his lips, slowing himself at the last second, remembering that this whiskey was meant to be savored. He swished the alcohol for a moment, reveling in that familiar bite before swishing it back. He watched his new buddy sip his own. His head suddenly spun and his body leaned backwards, turning on the barstool as though swinging around a rollercoaster curve.
          There it was. It sneaks up on you… then pop! all of a sudden you’re having a blast again…
          “To what do I owe this treat?” Steini asked.
          “I won a trip to Jita. I’m celebrating.” The gentleman waved to the bartender. “Another shot for this guy here!”
          “Got a get-rich-quick scheme?” Steini asked.
          “Nah, just a tourist. But it means the wife ain’t gonna make me splurge on an out-of-pocket vacation.”
          The mention of a wife sparked a pain as Steini thought of his own wife, dead eight years now, and felt a sudden shot of disgust at this man who had such little appreciation for his partner that he would refer to her as “the wife”. As Steini took another long drink of his rum and Quafe, he felt his datapad vibrating with an incoming call. He waited a long moment as the bartender put the next shot in front of him. He put it to his lips and tilted back as he pulled the datapad from his pocket.
          He swallowed the shot as he pressed the answer button. “What’s up,” he asked.
          “Steini, sir!” Dolain’s voice. One of the newer slaves to come through his farm. Steini muted the call and jumped from the barstool.
          “Something important?” asked the stranger next to him.
          “Yeah,” Steini replied as he stepped toward the bathroom, his right foot crossing dramatically over the path of his left, drawing him off course. He stumbled forward and caught himself, correcting his path to move rapidly toward the lavatory. As he staggered, he flipped open another call connection with Ka’Deer, his neighbor and partner in crime, so that he could listen in.
          He broke into the room and checked that no one else was in sight, then unmuted the call. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing calling me on this line?” he said as the image came back on screen.
          Dolain was no longer there. Instead, Stepphana’s beautiful little face sat on the screen, tear streaked and terrified. “We have a problem, Daddy.”
          “Oh, please no… I thought you could handle yourself there.”
          “A policeman came, Daddy. He just walked right in. I did everything you told me, but it didn’t matter; he just forced his way in.”
          “They were waiting for you to leave her alone,” Dolain put in from off-camera.
          And Steini’s heart sank as he stared back.
          “Dad?” Stepphana said.
          “Are the police there right now?” he asked.
          “No,” she replied.
          “But they will be in a few seconds,” Dolain put in.
          “Okay, listen… did they arrest you, Honey? Remember, you don’t know anything, got it? You have no idea whatsoever what I’ve been doing. You tell them I never let you down there… you say that I’d beat you if you went down there… if you tell them that I hit you, they’ll believe you and they won’t blame you at all, Honey… listen to me…” he stopped and tried to shake his head clear. “Wait, no… um… don’t say anything, got it! Don’t you dare say a word to them about anything! You know nothing, got it! You’re twelve years old. You read teen magazines and watch cartoons. That’s all you know.”
          “No!” she screamed, the voice cracking through the tiny speaker. “You don’t understand! I killed him, Daddy.”
          “What do you mean?” Steini asked as the room began to rotate around him.
          “I mean I killed him,” she said.
          Steini opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words. “I don’t understand…” It didn’t make sense. A police officer wouldn’t have turned his back on anyone… even a little girl.
          “I… killed… him.” Stepphana repeated. “The policeman came and I killed him… I didn’t know what I was doing.” Her jaw and eyebrows trembled.
          “Get in The Hole!” he shouted.
          “I know!”
          “You lock yourself down as deep as you can and stay hidden.”
          “They found the tunnel!” Stepphana shouted.
          “We’re already moving as deep as we can,” Dolain answered. “All security measures are online. They knew the code to the first door, but hopefully they won’t have any knowledge of the deeper systems. I’ve put a call into your contacts. They’re prepping your frigate and beginning evacuation procedures.”
          Steini felt a moment of disgust, knowing that one of the Republic sleeper cells would likely become involved and his stomach churned at the idea of accepting their assistance.
          “Switch up the codes and don’t say them over phone lines.” Steini looked around at the empty bathroom. If this was happening back home, it would be a matter of minutes before another team found him here. “I need to get out,” he said. He muted the call and headed out of the bathroom.
          He staggered to the bar, noticing his new friend was no longer sitting on his stool. “What happened to that guy?”
          The bartender shrugged. “Got a call on his datapad, paid his tab and booked it out of here… didn’t even wanna hear his total… he gave me enough to cover yours too.”
          They had wanted him drunk.
          “Thanks,” Steini said as he took a step toward the front door, then changed his mind and moved rapidly toward the back.
          How could this have happened? He’d led his daughter down a dark and evil path… confused her sensibilities with talk of freedom and equality for the Minmatar while allowing her to go to regular schools and absorb the common ethnocentric ideals.
          The cold evening air hit him as though he’d stepped into another universe… a lonely back-alley dimension of fear and hatred.
          They would be coming for him soon. He staggered down the alley and slid behind a dumpster, pulling the datapad back to his face to see simply the walls of the tunnels beneath his house, jolting back and forth. They were running deeper into The Hole. “Stepphana!” he shouted. “Dolain! What are you doing?”
          He heard the bar door slam open.
          A long pause.
          “Steini!” A man’s voice. “Step into the light. You’re under arrest. Step out where I can see you and you will not be harmed.”
          Steini pressed himself against the garbage and put a hand to his head.
          “I hear you!”
          And Steini frantically muted the datapad.
          “Your precious Minmatar killed one of my men and I’m looking for an excuse to put a bullet through your head, so I suggest you step into the light and don’t make any sudden movements.” The voice got closer with each moment. Steini peered under the bin to see feet stepping carefully through the alley. He glanced around for a place to run, but the alley was sealed all the way to the street. There would probably be more cops waiting there too.
          “Okay,” Steini said. “I’ll give up.” He set the datapad on the dumpster, put his arms up and slowly stepped from behind the dumpster.
          The officer stood in the middle of the alley, his gun outstretched in both hands. “Hands behind your head!”
          Steini obeyed, his eyes glued to the barrel of the gun and the little black circle bearing down on him.
          “Down on your knees,” shouted the officer “Then lie face down on the ground!”
          Somehow Steini’s gaze was pulled away from the weapon bearing down on him toward the vehicle turning rapidly into the alley from far behind the officer. At first he assumed it was police, but as it accelerated, kicking up garbage in it’s wake, Steini realized something else was happening.
          The officer turned. “Get against the wall!” He turned his back to Steini and opened fire on the vehicle.
          That shouldn’t be possible…
          It revved harder and continued racing down the alley as Steini recognized it as Ka’Deer’s car.
          Steini threw himself against the brick wall behind the dumpster as the officer pressed himself against the opposite wall. The vehicle turned slightly and sped past the officer within what must have been a couple centimeters of clearance.
          The car screeched to a halt as Steini stared back at the officer, who stood nearly motionless against the wall, his gun held at his side. His eyes turned slowly toward Steini, but he did not move to continue his apprehension. Instead, he simply looked down calmly and Steini followed his gaze to see the officer’s uniform torn open to reveal his chest and stomach.
          Blood flowed and his stomach slowly opened to reveal the wound from the vehicle’s side mirror. He dropped the gun and moved his hands to cover the gash, but didn’t seem to have the strength to apply pressure. The blood covered his hands and ran down his arms. He looked up at Steini, as though seeing an old friend and suddenly understanding everything that Steini was going through.
          As the cop fell forward, he seemed to offer his silent forgiveness, as though the alternate reality just before death brought all his wrongs into perspective, and he understood why the criminals did what they did and suddenly questioned his job as a moral authority, making a career out of destroying people’s lives.
          The car reversed and pulled up in front of Steini. Ka’Deer threw open the passenger door. “Get in!”
          “How did you know–” Steini shook his head and asked himself if he was dreaming.
          “Because you called me! Get in the car!”

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