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Chapter One


Twenty Months Later — Present Day, March 2080


Raisa didn’t see the right jab in time, but she felt it land squarely against her ribs. Her lungs involuntarily expelled all their air as she worked not to stagger back more than a step or two. Pain shot through the right side of her abdomen. A cracked rib. Unfortunately, the jab was a setup for a right hook that caught her in the side of her head. Her right knee buckled as stars exploded in her vision, and she found herself on the mat again. But this wasn’t her first fight. Raisa had grown as a fighter since Lieutenant Elliot had first beaten her in Basic Training, a lifetime ago. 

Raisa rolled to her left and got to her knees, expecting Elliot’s follow-up move. It would, no doubt, be painful if she landed it. Raisa made sure she didn't. Lieutenant Sandra Elliot was a tall, lean muscular woman who moved with lightning quickness, so Raisa knew she only had a split second to get out of the way or suffer the consequences. But getting out of Elliot’s way wasn't enough, was it? 

Stop thinking like you’re on defense. 

Even though Raisa didn't have the large frame of Lieutenant Elliot, she was athletic, and she’d learned a thing or two from sparring with the best of her guards. At first, no one wanted to fight her. There was something counterintuitive about trying to hurt the woman you pledged to protect, but Raisa had insisted. More than a year earlier, Raisa had first learned self-defense skills in Basic Training. It was like putting arrows in the quiver of a hunter. It fueled a passion in her to master what she had discovered there. Now she made time to train almost every day, ordering select soldiers to give her their best. It had become an obsession for Raisa, at least that’s what Alexander, her husband, said. She preferred to think of it as a healthy workout routine. 

There was no time to get on her feet before Elliot launched another attack, so Raisa opted to strike from her hands and knees. She swung a strong right leg in a sweeping motion hoping to hit her mark. The tall woman, who was Raisa’s age, went down hard on her back. The oof sound that came out of Elliot's mouth told Raisa that she’d had the wind knocked out of her. Raisa scrambled to her feet, preparing to attack her opponent, who lay prone on the floor. Fat chance of that. Elliot moved like a cat, smooth and clean and fast. She was on her feet before Raisa could make her move, but she still had options. In the past, missing her first opportunity would have blinded Raisa to the one staring her in the face. Lieutenant Elliot had the habit of dropping her hands for a split second when setting her stance. Coming up off the floor, Raisa knew she’d drop them as she got to her feet. Acting more on instinct than processed thought, she jabbed hard at Elliot’s face, connecting with her cheek. A cut opened up on Elliot’s face, and she staggered back, surprised. 

Raisa pivoted, thrusting her left heel into her opponent's chest, sending her to the mat again. Raisa dropped to the floor, straddling the downed soldier and raised her right fist aiming at the lieutenant's face. As her fist came down, Elliot raised a defensive hand that took the impact of the blow. A cry of pain followed the sound of breaking bone. Raisa raised her fist again.

“Match,” Alexander called, ending it. 

Raisa slowly lowered the fist she held over the Lieutenant. She let out two slow breaths to bring her heart rate down, dispelling the adrenaline that was running through her body. Standing, she helped her opponent to her feet, careful not to put pressure on her cracked ribs. Both women sported bloody lips and contusions on their faces. Each took inventory of her own injuries. 

Motioning to Elliot’s hand, Raisa said, “You might want to get some ice on that.” Raisa knew that by morning it would be healed, but until then, it would hurt like the devil.

“Yes, ma’am,” Elliot said. 

Did Raisa hear resentment in her voice? Elliot was a proud soldier who came from a military family. It wasn’t often that Raisa got the better of her, but it was happening more often and producing more injuries. Alexander sometimes complained about the injuries, but Raisa dismissed it, saying she would never fight a normal human being with the same intensity that she fought Elliot or the other five women from her Basic Training squad. These women were different. They were special. Nearly indestructible. A genetic fluke created by the Pittsburgh Virus at the time they were each conceived made them unique. The genetic mutation caused by the virus changed them on a cellular level. Their cells didn’t deteriorate at a normal rate, maintaining their constant youthfulness, at least compared to the normal aging process. This same mutation caused them to heal at an accelerated rate when injured. 

Good thing, too. Raisa had a formal reception the next evening, and it wouldn’t do for the queen to show up in public battered and bruised. By then, she’d be fine. 

“You’re reacting quicker and more decisively,” Alexander said, throwing her a towel after Elliot left. “And with more force. If you had landed that punch on her face, it could’ve hurt her.”

Raisa toweled off the sweat running into her eyes. “She can handle herself. Besides, without a weapon, I couldn’t do anything to her that wouldn’t heal in a day, two at the most.” She put on a sly smile and threw the towel around his neck, pulling him close. “Why? Are you afraid that I will get so good I’ll beat you one day?” 

“Not a chance,” Alexander said, pecking a kiss on her lips. “But I think you need to dial it down a notch. You command the New World forces, but no one expects you to lead them into battle. You have nothing to prove.”

Raisa’s face lost its cheery tone, and she released Alexander from her hold. This was a conversation they’d had more than a few times in the past year, and she wasn’t up to having it again. “Can we pick this up later? I need to shower.”

The queen’s personal gym was in the basement level of The Palace. The main residence was up two floors. Raisa took the stairs at a trot to finish out her workout. She hated cutting Alexander off, but she wasn’t ready to answer his questions. He wasn’t wrong. She had become more focused on combat training and workouts. Fighting empowered her. She was leaner, and stronger, and faster than she’d ever been, but also trapped in a cage of protocol and duty that came with her position. Some days being queen meant you were the most famous cog in the wheel. Grappling with an opponent, giving and receiving pain in the quest for dominance, had a visceral effect that sharpened her senses and her wit. It kept her connected to the most basic realities of life. The pain reminded her she was alive, and she needed that. It also reminded her of what she’d lost. Nearly two years into her reign, Raisa wondered if she would be a visionary leader or a placeholder. She rubbed her knuckles that were still raw from the fight. I have a very long lifetime to figure it out. 

Arriving on the floor of the residence, Raisa began to think through her day. After a quick shower, Alora, her chief of staff, would be waiting for her with a schedule of the day's events. As much as she looked forward to greeting the Czar ahead of the next evening’s dinner, Raisa woke up that morning thinking about the Ten Thousand. Later in the morning, the staff would plan how they’d reach out to them. Raisa had a hundred ideas swirling in her mind, and she couldn’t wait to get them out. She had dreamed of meeting the Ten Thousand ever since she learned of their existence. Raisa spent her nights poring over their profiles, learning as much as she could about who they were. Today’s meeting would take her one step closer. 

Raisa opened the door to the living area of the residence and found Alora sitting on the sofa, as she expected. What she didn't expect to see was Commander Song, chief of palace security, and Raven, her lifelong friend. Something was wrong. Raisa ran through the possibilities in her head. It probably wasn’t something related to the country or her role as queen. That would have brought a different crowd of people. So it was personal. She’d just seen Alexander downstairs, so it wasn’t about him. Both of her parents were dead, and she had no other family except her brother Ben. Ben! 

“Raisa, we have bad news.” It was Alora who spoke. Commander Song looked at the floor, and Raven was on the verge of an emotional outburst, her lips trembling, and her eyes shimmering. 

“Is it Ben?”

Alora nodded. “Jimbo found him this morning, about an hour ago.”

“How—” Raisa couldn’t finish the question.

“Suicide. I’m so sorry.”

At that, Raven began to cry.

A weird taste made its way to Raisa’s tongue, and she put her hand on a chair to steady herself. Her whole body felt as if it were a reservoir of tears ready to pour out, but she would not allow it. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. She was planning to see Ben the next day, before the state dinner. They were going to have lunch together and catch up with each other. She’d cleared hours from her schedule just for him. How could he do this to her after everything she’d lost, everything they’d lost. “How do we know it was him?” she said. A stupid question, she thought, but it’s what came to her mind. 

“Jimbo Haynes is the one who found him,” Commander Song said. 

Jimbo knew Ben better than anyone except Raisa. He had taken Ben in as if he were his own son after their father’s death. She trusted Jimbo to know if it were Ben. “Maybe it wasn’t a suicide,” Raisa said, desperate to change the truth. 

“He hanged himself,” Song said just above a whisper. 

“Someone else could have done it,” Raisa shouted, “to get at me.” But she knew the truth. Ben had killed himself, and she hadn’t been able to stop him. He had blamed himself for their father’s death, and none of Raisa’s words could heal that wound. 

Raisa’s finely honed muscles failed her, and she slid to the floor along the back of the chair. Sweat and tears mingled on her cheeks as sobs racked her body. Raisa was acquainted with loss, but this was different. A different kind of sadness ran through her tears, not because of Ben's death, which carried its own kind of grief, but because of his life. How could anyone believe death was the only way out?

The door to the residence opened, and Alexander bolted in, his brow drawn together, and his eyes red. He dropped to the floor and embraced Raisa, letting her bury her head in his chest, exhausting her tears for the moment. When Raisa finally lifted her face and opened her eyes, the room was empty. Alora had led the others out to give them privacy. 

Raisa lifted her gaze to her husband and said, “I have no one left to protect.” 


Jimbo Haynes met Raisa at the hospital and escorted her to see Ben one last time. His colorful outfit was the only evidence of his flamboyant personality. “I'm so sorry,” was all that Jimbo could manage as he hugged Raisa and led her to a set of double doors. 

Through the doors, Raisa found herself in a large medical bay with a metal table at the center. Ben lay on the table covered by a sheet that ended just below his shoulders. His artificially jet black hair stood in contrast to the stark white of his lifeless skin. A tattoo of a dragon, one that Raisa didn't recognize, adorned his neck. “How long has he had that?” she asked, feeling guilty about how long it had been since she’d seen him. 

“Not long,” Jimbo said, but Raisa suspected he was sparing her the truth of how much she’d missed.

Stepping to the table, Raisa stroked Ben’s hair. He was only fifteen. A new hatred for Creighton Ashwill fused with the ache in her soul. Creighton hadn’t killed her brother, but he might as well have. The night he invaded their home two years earlier and took her had changed Ben. It created a hardness in him that no thirteen-year-old should experience. It started him on a path that ended in that cold, antiseptic room. 

Raisa had been to plenty of funerals, including her parents, but she had never seen death like this. This was raw. A body on a table. This was Ben, not some touched-up version of who he should have been. And not some made-up version he pretended to be, tough and independent. Lying there without funeral home cosmetics or the hard shell he created for himself, he was just a kid who got swallowed up by a world he couldn't overcome. A world that had elevated Raisa to be the queen, but left her powerless to save him. 

Raisa stood for a long time stroking Ben’s hair, letting the silence of the room envelop her like a blanket until Jimbo put a gentle hand on her back and said, “Your Majesty, it’s time to say goodbye.” 


Submitted: April 12, 2020

© Copyright 2023 Doug Felton. All rights reserved.


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