“Spread your legs and bend over.”
Cavalon’s face flushed. Actually flushed. Embarrassing Cavalon Mercer was a feat few could boast. He was a little impressed.
He looked over his shoulder to grin at the guard, but the sour-faced man narrowed his eyes and jabbed Cavalon’s hip with his shock baton. A jolt of electricity shot along the nerves of his leg.
“Spread ’em, soldier.”
Cavalon’s smirk faded into a scowl. He complied, spreading his legs and leaning against the wall in front of him. He flinched at the snap of a rubber glove. “If we’re gonna do this—agh!”
Apparently they were going to do it, right-the-fuck now.
Cavalon squirmed, pressing his cheek into the cold aerasteel wall as the guard reached higher.
“I mean, if we’re going to be intimate,” he managed, “you could at least tell me your name.”
“Pleased to—ugh—meet you, Bray.”
“Does talking make this better for you?” Bray jeered.
Another guard snickered from behind a terminal in the corner of the room.
Cavalon pressed his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes. “No.”
Twenty hellishly uncomfortable seconds later, Bray removed his fingers and pulled off the glove. “He’s clear, Rivas.”
“Was that strictly necessary?” Cavalon grumbled.
Rivas stepped out from behind the intake desk, Cavalon’s underwear in hand. “We like to be thorough.”
“Clearly.” Cavalon snatched his boxers from the smug man’s grip and pulled them on. If this was what life aboard the SCS Argus was going to be like, he was already over it.
Rivas returned to his terminal in the corner of the cramped intake chamber, lit only by a few narrow strips of recessed lights running vertically up the aerasteel walls. The holographic displays above the desk cast a dim blue aura across Rivas as he flicked through files. He stopped on a glowing icon and swept it open. “Full name Cavalon Augustus Mercer the Second. Confirm.”
“Service number sigma 6454–19. Confirm.”
Cavalon thumbed the pair of newly minted, absurdly antiquated, etched metal and glass identification tags around his neck. “Uh, sounds right.”
“Your bioscan determined a biological age of thirty-four standard years. Confirm.”
Cavalon narrowed his eyes. “I’m twenty-seven.”
“Soldier is advised that biological age factors in degradation of physical form due to environmental factors including injury, wear-and-tear, use of narcotics—”
“Yeah, I get it,” Cavalon sighed. “Sure, confirmed.”
“Offenses listed as…” Rivas exchanged a quick look with Bray, then raised an eyebrow at Cavalon. “Redacted?”
A wave of relief washed over him, and he forced a grin. “Definitely confirmed.”
Rivas shook his head and swiped the screen.
It flashed green, then a shrill, artificial female voice rang from speakers. “Identity confirmed. Please proceed to the next intake chamber.”
A door in the sleek silver wall slid open, and Bray invited Cavalon forward with a condescending smile and a sweep of his arm. Cavalon drew back his shoulders and marched toward the door.
“Hold up.” Bray grabbed Cavalon by the shoulder and pulled him back. “You’ve got Imprints.”
Cavalon twisted his right arm to angle his tricep at Bray. The gold and bronze squares of the Imprint tattoos running from shoulder to wrist rearranged with the flexing of muscle, glinting as they caught the light.
“Just noticed that, huh?” Cavalon said. “You were too busy checking out my—”
“Shut it.” Bray turned to Rivas. “Rivas—Imprints.”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard you.” Rivas detached a tablet from the top of the console and walked around the desk. He swiped the screen and a flood of neon-blue text poured into the air above it, the lines blurring together as the words sped by. He took a deep breath. “The System Collective Legion acknowledges that preexisting Imprints cannot be removed at risk of death. However, measures will be taken to counteract inappropriate use of preexisting Imprints, by whatever means deemed necessary by your commanding officer or the excubitor.”
The holographic display above the tablet disappeared, and the outline of a small box materialized alongside a rather unfortunate mugshot of Cavalon.
“Do you understand?” Rivas asked.
Cavalon scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, yeah? I guess.”
“Sign to acknowledge.”
Cavalon pressed his thumb to the tablet. The screen flashed and his fingerprint faded away as more blue text flooded the air above the tablet, disappearing off the top too quickly to be read.
Rivas cleared his throat and continued. “You will be receiving a second set of Imprints per your intake aboard the SCS Argus. The System Collective Legion is not responsible for any adverse reaction you may have to an additional installation of Imprints. For the soldier’s comfort and safety, it is advised that the soldier not attempt to utilize the functions of preexisting Imprints, at risk of volatile interfacing, which may include injury or death.”
Cavalon eyed the waiver warily. “That sounds … bad.” He’d only ever heard of half-breeds getting more than one set of Imprints, and never with any kind of stable outcome.
“Do you understand?” Rivas prompted.
“What would you do if I said no?” Cavalon asked. “Do I get to go home?”
Rivas’s jaw flexed, and from the corner of his eye, Cavalon caught a glimpse of Bray’s hand hovering over his shock baton.
Cavalon sighed. It wasn’t worth it. Not yet, at least. “Okay, fine. I understand—no unsanctioned Imprint shenanigans.”
“Sign to acknowledge.”
He pressed his thumb against the screen again and the tablet accepted it. Bray grabbed Cavalon’s arm and dragged him into the next room.
In stark contrast to the mood lighting in the violation chamber, this room seemed to be made of light. Walls of frosted glass showcased banks of white that bathed the entire chamber in an otherworldly glow.
Cavalon shielded his eyes with his free hand as the door whizzed shut behind them. In the center of the room sat a narrow counter, glowing from within, much like the walls. A silver box was suspended from the ceiling above the counter, and a series of articulated arms hung lifelessly beneath it.
An icy chill ran over Cavalon’s bare skin and he shuddered. He’d always found Viator tech wholly unnerving. There was something off-putting about utilizing technology created by a species that had all but wiped out your own, even if the war had ended centuries ago.
Though clearly a secondhand appropriation of the original tech, this apparatus too closely resembled the real thing—like the one from which Cavalon had received his current Imprints on his eighteenth birthday. The same day he’d been forced to acknowledge his role as the Mercer heir, and the same day he’d vowed to find a way to escape his fate. He supposed getting shipped off to the Sentinels qualified as success in that regard, though certainly not the outcome he’d hoped for.
He glanced at Bray, who swept his hand toward the machine in invitation. Cavalon ground his teeth. His first Imprint experience had been borderline-blackout painful.
Wringing his hands, he shuffled forward, sucking in a long breath and letting it out through his teeth. He sat on the stool in front of the machine and a panel slid open, revealing a clamp recessed beneath the glowing glass counter.
The computer’s voice returned. “Please place arm in the Imprint chamber.”
Cavalon eyed the gold and bronze squares on his right arm, then shifted and laid his left into the clamp. Cold metal closed around his forearm and the machine whirred to life, buzzing and clicking. A series of thin red beams shone from each of the articulated limbs, and they positioned themselves noisily until the lasers lined up with their reference points.
“Please hold still during the Imprint process,” the computer said.
White-hot beams shot into Cavalon’s arm and searing pain engulfed his senses. He gritted his teeth and withheld a groan as the lasers danced across his skin, burning and smoldering until his arm felt like it’d caught fire.
Just as he started to think it might be a good time to pass out, the heat from the lasers dissipated along with the radiating light. His jaw slackened, teeth aching from prolonged clenching.
Dozens of polished obsidian squares lay across the irritated, bright pink skin on his forearm. He opened and closed his fist as the new Imprint tattoos folded and unfolded of their own accord. They hummed as they streamed past his elbow and up his bicep.
He twisted his arm to glance at his first set of Imprints. The gold and bronze squares lay dormant in their default arrangement—a tidy series of lines that ran from wrist to shoulder. These new Imprints crawled up his skin and fell into formation in a latticed grid on his left tricep, with a single dotted line of black squares trailing to his wrist.
“Imprint application complete,” the computer chirped. “Control protocols updated.”
Cavalon gulped. Control protocols? He ran his fingers along the new markings, then took a breath and tried to access them, call out to them and command them like he could his royal Imprints. But they didn’t stir. They might have looked similar in appearance, but they were something else entirely.
His stomach knotted. Having a set of Imprints he couldn’t control disconcerted him, to say the least. Who knew what these things could do to him?
“Come on, tough guy.” Bray gripped Cavalon’s shoulder and lifted him from the stool. Cavalon followed numbly, flexing his sore arm and scratching the irritated skin.
Inside the next small room, Bray pressed his thumb into a screen and a panel in the wall opened, revealing a pile of navy-blue clothing and a pair of black boots.
Bray grabbed the stack and shoved it at Cavalon. “Suit up. Boss is incoming.” A door on the opposite wall slid open, and Bray left.
Cavalon called after him, “I thought we’d already moved past respecting each other’s privacy…” The door slid shut, leaving him alone in the changing room.
Copyright © 2021 by J. S. Dewes