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I hope you don't mind coming in on the ground floor.  There's not much to see in here yet, but that'll change.  Short stories, freebies, samples, and updates on various works in progress will all make their way in over time.  If all goes according to plan, there will eventually be some form of storefront as well.  As traditional publishing models evolve, self-publishing and e-pub'ing is becoming increasingly viable.  So watch this space — one way or another, there's much more to come.  Thanks for reading!

995 Final Session
A short time later, Marden was lying comfortably on his extended hideaway bed, and Benjamin was sitting in the hard, low-backed chair. Marden felt relaxed, peaceful, as if the tension of twenty years had finally been loosed. Benjamin almost could not believe what he was about to do — which was why he'd modified the safety controls of the Inducer to lock down fully once engaged. He didn't want to give himself a chance to back out. Not from this, not from the first just thing he'd undertaken in more than twenty years.
998 Final Session
Benjamin nodded. "Yes. Both of us. Our final session."
997 Final Session
"You're really going to let me out, aren't you?" Marden asked.
996 Final Session
When set and triggered, Benjamin's body would be locked rigid, unable to move — not tortured, but held unforgivingly in place until it eventually broke down. There would be pain. Benjamin wondered which of them would go first. It didn't really matter, as long as both went. Benjamin was unsure what afterlife he would pass into.
1000 Final Session
Benjamin engaged the Inducer, and the two men smiled joyously and floated together into release.
999 Final Session
Marden rested his head comfortably on the pillow. A tired smile grew on his face.
856 Final Session
Horse Kings rarely did clean-up ops, but today was different. The massive assault on Prime, the Coalition's largest city on Iocasta, had left an open wound on the face of the world, and the entire Mutuality rear guard had been deployed there to secure the fringes and assert control. Any troops left elsewhere, on any lesser operation, had to pick up after themselves.

Marden debarked from the assault flyer behind Sergeant Wade, a hulk of a man whose chest started where Marden's height ended. If he had to be outside and on foot on the enemy's homeworld, he was glad to be with someone who was, both in fighting skill and sheer mass, about twice the soldier Marden was. Wade typically carried enough firepower to cover the rest of the team alone, while Marden rarely carried more than a standard-issue sidearm, and that was now holstered. He would have looked absurd, he knew, carrying his little pea-shooter behind the battleship-on-legs in front of him. So, he carried a portable scanner instead, and swept for hidden explosives, high-energy devices, or other scanners in the small bunker they were now approaching.

"Anything inside, Commander?" asked Wade.

"Not much," said Marden. "Some encoded network traffic, but it could be ambient. No indication it's booby-trapped."

"You sure? Don't want to go back up and drop a nice little kiloton charge on them to soften up anything they left behind?"
855 Final Session
Commander Marden Kupp wanted out. He just wanted it to be over.

The intrasystem war between the Mutuality and the decadent Coalition had gone on too long and had cost too many lives. What year was it now... 2146? Or 2147 already? The war had kept him from his home and family for so long that the even the most basic, taken for granted things — like seeing tulips blooming around the edge of his front porch or holding his wife's hand in his own — had reached mythic stature in his recollection. While his son was being born, Marden was ending the life of someone else's son. While his father-in-law battled cancer for his life, Marden battled the Coalition for territory. The skill and efficiency of Major Adams' strike team, Horse Kings, had kept Marden alive, and while he was thankful for that, he took no pride in the damage they inflicted on others' lives. He didn't look back after an attack — literally. He had, once. The vision of seared and ruined bodies still haunted him.

Marden wanted out. And for the first time in years, it looked as if his wish would come true. The war was about to end — favorably. He soon would be going home.
857 Final Session
Marden smiled. That would do it, but he doubted the Coalition had enough fight left in them for it to be worth the time. The Mutuality's final advance from Cynara, through the Dolens Expanse, and all the way to Iocasta had gone quicker and more smoothly than the Cardinal's most optimistic prayers. The bunker ahead of them was surely as dead as it looked, and probably had been for at least a day. Wade simply enjoyed blowing things up, usually with excessive force and at dangerously close range.

The scanner chirped three times — an alert signal. Marden shot a glance at the display. There was a tightly-focused energy spike emanating from inside the bunker. He tensed, shifting his grip on the scanner to free his right hand for his sidearm. Wade tensed as well, then jolted sharply upright and uttered a truncated gasp.


Wade toppled stiffly to the ground. Marden fumbled at his holster, trying to release the safety clasp. Wade twitched once, half buried under his arsenal of weapons, and went still.

The portable scanner chirped again.

No — not now!

Nothing could happen so near to the end. Nothing. For the first time in months, Marden could picture himself at home again. He was so close he could almost smell Amanda's scent against him. She would forgive him for all he'd done, if only he could make it back to her.

He dropped the scanner and was in mid-turn to sprint back to the flyer when the stunner hit him, too, and took him to the ground.
859 Final Session
That's how they want me to feel — comfortable. Convince me they're not the enemy. Ply me until I relax. Wheedle me into casually letting something slip.

He knew how this interrogation would go, and he knew how he'd resist. The more they tried to soften him with extravagance, the more he'd hate their excess, and the harder his resolve would become.

It won't work.

And if they tortured him... well, he dreaded that. But he had also been conditioned against it. The Mutuality had armed him with the psychological tools necessary to accept a great deal of pain without breaking. But sooner or later, he knew, everyone broke.
He shuddered as he exhaled. He'd survived so much, made it so close to the end of the war. Now, if the enemy didn't capitulate in time — or perhaps even if they did — he might never see his home and family again.

Hs back had grown stiff from sitting in the chair for so long. He shifted frequently to keep his legs from falling asleep. He'd never done well sitting in one position for a prolonged amount of time. He guessed it had been about five hours, without a sound from beyond the office-cell, and without any human presence but his own, when there was a gentle rapping on the door. It swung open to reveal a thin, unthreatening little man.
858 Final Session
The cell in which Marden awoke was like some wealthy executive's corner office. Rich dark wood lined the walls, and a flourishing potted ivy hung ornamentally in one of two large windows. Marden sat in a heavy, low-backed, unpadded metal chair before an ornate wooden desk, behind which sat a much larger, overstuffed leather chair stained in the same rich, red-brown hue as the desk and walls. If he weren't cuffed to his chair, he would not have been certain he was a prisoner here. The Coalition was decadent and self-indulgent, but without the offensive ostentation, Marden could almost be comfortable here.
861 Final Session
Some sort of truth serum, Marden surmised. That wouldn't work. His conditioning against that included both a chemical counteragent, infused into his bloodstream by a micropump planted deep in his thoracic cavity, and by layers of false information buried deep in his mind.

"It is difficult to say with certainty how long we will be working together, but I estimate no more than a week. During that time, you may call me Mister Slake."

"The Coalition will fall in less time than that," Marden said.

"Officially, it already has. An armistice was signed while you were being brought here. The Mutuality's strike on Prime killed Premier Hosep and most of the cabinet."

Marden inhaled sharply, betraying more reaction than perhaps he should have. The war was over? Just as quickly as elation came, it was replaced by dread.

Then why am I still here?

"The armistice is a ruse?" he asked. "A deception?"

"It might be," Mister Slake acknowledged nonchalantly. "I honestly don't know. I can only tell you that I have been instructed to proceed as planned to obtain your information."

Marden grinded his teeth. Anger was quickly replacing disgust. Slake was talking about the casual, self-serving dismissal of rules of war that went back centuries, not to mention violating old Earth's Geneva Convention doctrine on the proper treatment of prisoners of war. Marden was well aware that such violations occurred anyway. The Coalition could tell any story it wanted, withhold him from returning to his family, make him disappear, and Amanda would never know. He grew tense, but still didn't move. If he saw a chance to strike now, he would take it.
860 Final Session
"Hello," the man said. He was significantly older than Marden, but not elderly. He wore light, frameless glasses, the lenses held in place on the bridge of his thin nose by simple copper wires. His dark brown suit may have been silk, judging from its sheen. He closed the door behind himself, and moved to stand behind Marden. Marden could hear him breathing, slowly and evenly, as he did something at the back of Marden's chair. There must have been some apparatus there, Marden realized, down low where he couldn't crane his neck to see. Marden remained perfectly still. Maybe if he could accustom this man to thinking of him as docile, it would eventually buy him an opening to strike.

The man came around and sat in the luxurious chair behind the desk. He reclined comfortably. There was a new aroma in the room, Marden realized — something the man had brought with him. Cologne, perhaps, or simply the ambient aroma of some licentious party still clinging to his clothes. His refined airs were surely all affectation; no doubt after this he would go to a Coalition arena where captured Mutuality soldiers were publicly executed while a prostitute openly performed fellatio on him.

"You may be wondering what to expect," the man said. His voice was syrupy, and seemed to Marden just slightly too high-pitched. It was an artificially sing-song, entirely non-threatening voice. "I'm going to ask you for some simple information — not right now, but perhaps the next time I see you. If you do not provide me with a truthful answer, you will be tortured. However, it will not be in any way for which your Mutuality has prepared you, nor in any way similar to what your captured comrades will suffer. Your experience will be unique. It's neither a threat nor a guess for me to tell you that you will tell me everything I want to know. The organic mind, from the most sophisticated human intellectual down to the dumbest laboratory rodent, is astonishingly malleable
862 Final Session
"I know, I know," said Slake, condescendingly, reading Marden's expression. "The Mutuality of Cynara is devout, wise, and good, while the Coalition of Iocasta is decadent, corrupt, and evil."
"We don't torture our POWs."
"Of course not. You probably just preach them to death. As for you... You will figure out what we're doing to you soon enough." Slake rose from his chair and came around to Marden. "These will no longer be necessary," he said, releasing Marden's cuffs, right hand first.

Marden fixed his eyes on Slake's throat, visualized himself crushing the man's larynx instantly, tensed to strike, and—

Nothing. There was a momentary sensation of pushing through molasses, but his arm didn't move. He tensed his leg to deliver a crippling knee-shot to Slake's groin, but again, nothing.

"As I said," remarked Slake, "not necessary. The Inducer has been attuning itself to your nervous system since I came in. It now effectively controls your body, through direct input to your central nervous system. All autonomic functions will continue unimpeded, but you will be held quite immobile until I obtain your information."

Marden tried to shift in his chair, but couldn't. Breathing was unencumbered, and he hadn't lost sensation, but he was entirely frozen. He could only watch as Slake turned his back to him and strode to the office-cell door to leave.

"You won't get anything from me."

Slake paused, and turned. Marden could imagine the man checking off everything Marden might say on some mental list of predictable responses any prisoner might give.

"I am sorry, Mister Kupp, but I will."
864 Final Session
By the next morning, Marden was miserable — not from overt torture, as he'd anticipated the day before, but from the simple inability to do anything for self-comfort or relief. All this torture was was the prevention of fulfillment of basic bodily needs. Thirst and hunger came, but he couldn't drink or eat. Itches, discomfort, and soreness came, and worsened, but he couldn't scratch or shift to a more comfortable position. He hadn't appreciated how many times a day he must adjust his posture, alter his balance, stretch his arms and legs, and so on, until he couldn't do any such thing.

The pants of his flightsuit were soaked and stinking, but he couldn't remove them or clean himself. Only a degenerate organization like the Coalition would choose to torture by robbing one of his dignity like this. The Mutuality would never do such a thing. The Mutuality's collective will and actions were tempered by rules of restraint, decorum, and respect. They would never do this to anyone. They were better than that.

I am better than that. I am going to win this.


He still didn't know what Slake wanted.

At midday, Slake returned. Marden felt immediate relief. Maybe now they could get started. He didn't look forward to what must follow, other than that it would bring him closer to the end.
863 Final Session
Marden neither saw nor heard anything after the sun went down and the sky beyond the windows went dark. It was a muggy, overcast night. Not even starlight penetrated the gloom.

He thought of Amanda and the young son he had never met — Asher, named after Marden's father. For the first few hours, it helped. He recalled building their home together, the way Amanda never complained about the blisters on her hands or that they couldn't afford furniture, not even window blinds, afterwards. His enlistment grant eventually paid for all those things, and their parents helped to move it in while Marden went off to war. He had to believe that if he could just hold out, keep focusing on the pleasure of memories of Amanda, he would live to sleep in that house with her again.

By the time sunrise came, he hadn't slept or relieved himself for almost eighteen hours. He'd been holding his bladder since before Horse Kings took the bunker, and finally lost the battle. He felt a twinge of shame at first, then boldness and contempt as his urine spilled over the edges of the chair and soaked the plush rug beneath it.

Neither Slake nor anyone else came in to the office-cell, nor did Marden hear a sound, throughout that morning and into the following night.
866 Final Session
Marden drank through the straw desperately, chilling the back of his throat to the point of pain, and then still drinking. After a minute, he held some of the water in his mouth, and swished it around with his tongue, dispelling the dryness and washing away the rancid film that had formed. He spat out that water, spraying the front of Slake's desk. Water had never tasted so satisfying. He then enjoyed another, almost gratuitous, self-indulgent draft, and swallowed it, emptying the glass.

Slake smiled approvingly, then refilled the glass to the rim before returning the pitcher to the cabinet.

"I care very much about your comfort, Mister Kupp. It's by giving you comfort that I will get what I need."

"And what is that?"

"First, tell me how you feel now compared to right before I walked in."
Marden averted his eyes from the bastard. He was about to unleash a terse reply, but—

As he exhaled, the biting tension in his neck and shoulders all but disappeared. He froze momentarily, then took a deep breath.
I feel better — a lot better.

His eyes seemed to focus more easily than before. He followed his spit-water as it ran down the face of the desk. Some of it had already soaked into the rug, mixing with the rank urine that formed a circular stain beneath the chair.

"I've ruined your lovely rug."
865 Final Session
Marden followed the rodent-like little man with his eyes. Slake was dressed differently this time, more casually — half-naked in fact, in still-dripping shorts and with a towel across his shoulders, so large that its ends almost dragged on the floor. His thin, dark hair was slicked back, and there were droplets of water on the lenses of his frameless glasses. His feet padded wetly on the floor.

He's been swimming?

"I won't insult you by asking you how you're feeling," said Slake. He opened both windows, lowering the blinds of one to shield the ivy from direct sunlight. A freshening air swept through the room, bringing with it the scent of flowers and fresh-cut lawn. The fetid stink of Marden's waste went out with the old air.

"Take deep breaths," Slake encouraged him. "It will help make you more comfortable, faster."

"Don't pretend to care about my comfort," Marden croaked. He wasn't sure how much of it came out intelligibly; his throat was parched, and his dry tongue snapped against the back of his teeth when he spoke.

Slake opened a cabinet in the corner between the two adjacent windows, and withdrew a large glass and a pitcher full of ice water. He set the glass on the arm of Marden's chair, filled it, and stepped back graciously. Marden looked at the glass, then up at Slake as if such taunting cruelty were beneath even a bastard of the Coalition. Slake's brow went up and he glanced sharply at the cabinet, as if remembering something. He returned to the cabinet momentarily, then came back to Marden and placed a long straw in the glass of ice water. He maneuvered the other end of the straw to Marden's lips.
867 Final Session
Slake nodded sympathetically. "You couldn't help yourself. You held it for a very long time. In any case, it's not my rug. We're in one of Premier Hosep's district mansions."

Marden looked around as much as he could, unable to move his head, with a new interest. The seat of evil... "Not as big as I expected."

"You can't see very much from here. The main hall is enormous. The kitchen can accommodate forty slaves at a time, and the orgy suite is magnificent. Best I've ever fucked in."

Marden looked away from Slake in disgust.

"I'm not being serious, Mister Kupp. The kitchen staff is well paid, and there is no orgy suite. The Coalition is not the decadent monstrosity you Mutualists seem to believe we are. Premier Hosep was a patron of the arts, but he indulged in little else. The rug you've ruined was probably priceless."

"Then why put me on it?"

"I didn't put you there. But I don't see any reason to move you, either. Premier Hosep is dead, his entire family died with him, and frankly, I think that rug is hideous. My own tastes are... less garish."

Slake then turned to the window and lowered the blinds further, realizing that while the ivy was shaded, the sun had still been shining directly in Marden's eyes.

"You were wearing a wedding band when you were brought in, Mister Kupp. Don't worry, it will be returned to you later. Tell me about your partner."

At the induced recollection of Amanda, happiness filled Marden. Still, when he answered, it was with anger. "My wife."
868 Final Session
"Oh, I didn't say partner to imply that you're a homosexual, Mister Kupp. I'm aware of Mutualists' hang-ups in that regard. Partner is just the common term in the Coalition — well, the former Coalition, at least, before you murdered our leadership. It may comfort you to know that my own partners are usually women."

"You're not fit to know my wife's name."

Slake smiled pleasantly. "Well, that I already do know. There was a short letter in your flightsuit's inside pocket, I assume to be read by your wife in the event of your death. Amanda Marlena."

Marden felt another surge of joy at the mention of Amanda's name. His entire body relaxed, and he allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment. He imagined himself falling into the comfort of her loving arms. He may have fallen into, as it was called in flight training, a micro-sleep. It was something to be avoided among fatigued pilots, but recognized as almost a physiological necessity, and far more refreshing than one might believe a few seconds of light sleep could be.

Slake's penetrating voice roused him.

"...but I asked you to tell me about her, not her name."

Marden took another deep breath, surprised to feel his strength returning so quickly. Amanda entered his mind again, and again he felt delight. He began to tell Slake about her, how they met, and his pleasure increased. He told Slake about their wedding and the things that made Amanda special. Slake listened patiently, occasionally interjecting kind words at suitable moments. Marden's pride in himself and his success in marriage increased as Slake listened on. Nothing else seemed to matter at that moment — not even his own doubtful future. He felt a deeply fulfilling satisfaction and delight and his discomfort retreated to the point that he forgot about it entirely.

After listening to him for over an hour, Slake smiled warmly, and left the room.
870 Final Session
More water came with Slake's visit the next morning, and juices, and an overfilled platter of fruit and pastries. Slake allowed him the use of his left hand, with strength and range of motion severely limited, to feed himself. No utensils were provided, but Marden's fingers worked fine, and he licked every trace from them after every bite.
869 Final Session
Within minutes of Slake's departure, Marden's discomfort began to return. He again felt the sticky, gummy dampness around his groin, and the full tension and soreness in his muscles returned. All the water he drank in the respite of Slake's presence soon forced him to relieve himself again. While the fresh flow temporarily alleviated the worst of the acrid itch that burned the inside of his legs, he knew it would only come back worse.

Would Slake return that day? Marden didn't know, but he doubted it. At least he'd be spared the offense of having to look at the self-satisfied man's face. A light breeze continued to blow through the office, though it seemed to no longer dispel Marden's stench as completely as it had when Slake was in the room.

As evening came with no further visits, Marden gazed out the window on his left at the distant warming shine of Cynara, his beloved homeworld. Within a few hours, the night sky had shifted and Cynara was eclipsed by the window frame. The breeze blew cold through the room, and Marden began to shiver.
872 Final Session
Slake watched him expectantly for a moment. "Would you like to tell me more?"

Marden's eyes closed as his head lolled back. Yes. He could tell Slake about the formidable Sergeant Wade. Whatever happened to Wade, he wondered? He was probably fine... He could tell him about Major Adams, too.

No. He would not tell Slake anything.


"Perhaps later," said Slake. "Tell me about your base of operations. It's in the Dolens Expanse, is it not?"

"N— "

Marden was unable to finish the word before pain snapped him rigid. His mouth froze in a rictus of agony as he twinged and strained, reflexively trying to twist free from the sudden pain. But he couldn't move! The waves of neuroelectrically-induced pleasure that had streamed from the Inducer since the moment Slake returned to the room had allowed him to forget that we was still almost completely paralyzed. He forced himself to calm, to try to relax his shoulders. As Slake urged, he took deep breaths, shudderingly at first then gradually more still. After a moment, the most excruciating points ebbed to dull aches. After a moment, waves of euphoria coarsed through him again.

"What did you just do to me?"

"I did nothing to you, Mister Kupp. The Inducer sensed that you were not being truthful, and it simply disengaged."
871 Final Session
Marden spoke aimlessly between sips and bites as Slake patiently listened. When he finished the food, Slake brought him more. Marden was in heaven.

"By now," said Slake, "you may have surmised how the Inducer applies to information obtainment. It can feed you pleasure and loosen your body as easily as it can lock your muscles and seal in your pain. When I am here, you feel comfort, relief, even bliss. When I am away, you become acutely uncomfortable. Endorphins activate when the L-lactic acid in your muscles reaches a certain level of concentration, but they can only do so much. At the same time, any pain can only do so much to compel you. We lose the dynamic range of pain when we become saturated by it. It is the very dynamism of pain and its remission — joined with the fear one derives from knowing that as bad as it is now, it can become unimaginably worse — that propels secrets from suppression to desperate openness."

Slake then came around to Marden's side of the desk. "I tell you this not to taunt you, Mister Kupp, but to hasten our progress. Your mind would deduce these facts independently, and for a time, you would find solace in them, and the strength to resist. It would be cruel for me to permit this, as it could only delay the inevitable."

Slake withdrew the empty tray then and placed it on a shelf in the cabinet.

"Mister Kupp, I would like for you to tell me about your strike team, Horse Kings. You're proud of your comrades, aren't you?"

"We are the best," said Marden. A wave of euphoria washed over him. It felt good to talk about the team. That simple assertion was all he would give Slake, however. Despite the swelling of pleasure, he wouldn't betray his unit or the Mutuality.
873 Final Session
"Disengaged, like hell. You just spiked me with blast of pain."

"No. The pain is natural. I am not lying to you, Mister Kupp. I will never lie to you, in fact. You've been sitting in your own filth, in the same position, unable to move, for days. Extreme discomfort must be expected."

Marden tried to relax into the euphoria, tried to imagine it washing his accumulated fatigue and pain away. But he couldn't, because it couldn't. It didn't replace the actual muscular stresses that were agonizing him. It simply intercepted the neural signals on their way to the brain and fed a false message in their place. Besides, at the moment, his mind could no longer reference anything called pain to latch onto and imagine washing away.

"So, you see," continued Slake, "your comfort really is in your own hands — in your willingness to give me truthful information." Slake may have mildly laughed then; Marden was unsure. The euphoria was so enveloping, it was distracting. "It used to be manipulation for the person in my position to tell the person in your position that you're doing it to yourself, that the end of the torment is in your own hands... Now, it's true."

"But what's the point?" asked Marden. "Surely you've already gotten everything you want from others. You're just going to kill all of us when you're done."

Slake shook his head. "The others are already dead, Mister Kupp. My colleagues were perhaps too... impatient in their use of the more classic techniques. Unfortunately for us, if I don't get the information I need from you, then I don't get it. If I do get what I want — Excuse me, when I get what I want, you will be released. You will go home. You will be free."
874 Final Session
Slake reclined in his chair and let Marden continue to soak in the pleasure. After a moment, Slake said, "Horse Kings' base of operations is in the Dolens Expanse, yes?"

Marden sighed. What if I just don't answer? The answer to that was immediate. The pleasure scaled back in irregular steps, dropping him from euphoria to bliss, bliss to contentment, contentment to a neutral state, then to discomfort, to pain, to agony. Marden couldn't have said whether the unpredictability made each step more tolerable or less. He only knew the threshold was still dropping.

Hell, he already knows it's in the Dolens.

"Yes," he gasped. The pain level remained the same.


Slake smiled thinly. "There's no need to shout, Mister Kupp. I may be indifferent, but the Inducer doesn't like it when you lie. It doesn't return the pleasure as quickly the next time."

"My god, why are you doing this to me? Isn't the war over?"

"I believe I've already addressed both of those questions. I would think the question now should be, what will the Inducer do to your nervous system over the long term? I honestly don't know. It's the only device of its kind — just a prototype, really — and I've never taken its capabilities to this extreme for a prolonged period of time. I would say you're fortunate that I was able to build a case for trying it on you, instead of just letting them torture you via the classical techniques... but the truth is, you may suffer permanent paralysis. You may end up a vegetable. Amanda deserves better than to spend the rest of her life tending a vegetable, doesn't she?"

Marden scowled. Next, Slake would suggest that in order to feed her vegetable husband, Amanda would turn to prostituting herself for Coalition bastards like Slake.


"Now," said Slake, "tell me about your base of operations. Tell me everything."
876 Final Session
Perhaps rewarding him, Slake stayed with him for days so that the pleasure wouldn't end. Slake did whatever Slake did in his regular duties, from the late Premier Hosep's majestic desk in his magnificent office, while the ivy flourished and the breeze passed through the windows and Marden had heavenly fantasies of Amanda that seemed to go on forever. Marden felt as if he were drifting endlessly through the delightful peace that joined sleeping and waking, the time and place he enjoyed lingering most with Amanda curled up at his side on a beautiful spring morning.

At times, Slake spoke to him of his own pleasures — of swimming in the mansion's grand pool, of dining on his favorite foods, of the pleasure he'd taken with his first male partner and how he'd let that same male partner take pleasure from him. His recollections became Marden's experiences, as if the two of them were somehow symbiotically linked through the Inducer. Marden realized he had been wrong about the Coalition, and he felt ashamed. Slake was a good man. Hosep had been a good man. The Sovereign Council of the Mutuality had conducted itself like uncivilized cowards when they nuked Prime. Then nuked it again, cleansing it. And again.

Slake listened and cared about everything Marden said, and forgave him for even the worst things he had done during the course of the war — things which Marden could barely imagine he had done. Slake soothed his soul, washed the guilt away.
875 Final Session
Marden resisted for as long as he could, but it started to feel pointless when he inventoried everything he knew and realized its sum tactical value was very, very low. It no longer felt rational to resist for the point of resisting. Besides, he convinced himself, if the war was over, it was only a matter of time before this would end. The Coalition was probably simply stockpiling operational information for future use, in the event that the armistice expired before a formal peace treaty was signed. The Mutuality would be doing the same, but would be doing so from the position of strength which it already claimed. With the fall of Hosep and the annihilation of Prime, the Coalition would never achieve parity, let alone superiority.

At times, the pleasure became so intense, Marden was only peripherally aware of what he was saying. Yes, yes, he thought, hearing his own voice as if it were someone else speaking. Yes, what I'm telling Mister Slake is true, it's good, it feels so good to tell him, there's no real reason not to tell it, not really. So good to tell...
878 Final Session
One evening, Slake said to him, "You have told me many helpful things, Mister Kupp. I am grateful. I believe this has been our final session. I must leave you for a while now, but don't worry. I will cycle the Inducer's archive and allow you to relive all the pleasures of the past week until I return. It will be as if I am still with you."

Marden nodded languidly. "Will you be gone long, Mister Slake?"

"Not long, I don't believe," Slake replied, his voice already receding.
877 Final Session
Off and on, Marden spoke more of Horse Kings: where they had been, what they had done, how Major Adams had fabricated a zero-gee rec room around the Corvin chamber, that Sergeant Wade was the most magnificent man he knew and how he'd like to be with him intimately... or was that Slake's insertion? He didn't know anymore whether he was responding to Slake's gentle questions or speaking of his own volition. He didn't care. There was only the pleasure of the Inducer, and having a good man to enjoy it with. The Mutuality could offer nothing like it.

He couldn't wait to go home and share it with Amanda.
879 Final Session
"Do you promise?"
881 Final Session
"Mister Slake?"
880 Final Session
"I promise, Mister Kupp. I have never lied to you; I will never lie to you."
884 Final Session
Slake's voice was almost gone, but Marden heard him say, "I will see you again, Mister Kupp."
883 Final Session
"...I love you."
882 Final Session
"Yes, Mister Kupp?"
886 Final Session
Marden's universe was an explosion of pain. He could not imagine what had gone wrong, could not even be sure that the pleasure had ever been real in the cacophony of suffering that suddenly wracked his body. The pleasure had never been real, but he had experienced it, lived it, nonetheless.
885 Final Session
Marden floated alone into the pleasure.
889 Final Session
His senses cleared slowly, but cleared enough for him to recognize a hulking giant in a Coalition general's uniform standing in front of him. Marden's head swung low, and his chin touched his chest while he surveyed himself. His flightsuit was soaked and rife with filth. He had soiled himself so many times that his legs now burned from caked-on muck and bacteria all the way down to the floor. Surely his flesh within his uniform was covered in sores, and decaying. The giant's threat to kill him was ludicrous; his body had to be on the verge of failure already. The general grabbed his hair and yanked his head back.
888 Final Session
Oh, God, yes, please kill me! Quickly! The words blasted through Marden's mind, but he heard them leave his mouth as only a choked gurgle. A moment later, he was doused with ice water.
887 Final Session
"I asked you a question!" shouted a thunderous voice above him. "Give me an answer, you stinking Mutual, or I'll kill you where you sit!"
892 Final Session
"Answer me!"
891 Final Session
Marden searched the room with his eyes while the giant held his head steady. Where was Mister Slake?
890 Final Session
"We're taking the Dolens Expanse," the giant gruffed. "We know the Mutuals have Corvin weapons there. Why haven't they used them?"
895 Final Session
—flooding Marden with ecstasy. Marden inhaled pleasure. The general became Sergeant Wade, and he was stroking Marden's hair—
894 Final Session
The general reached around behind him an hit something on the back of the chair—
893 Final Session
"Please," croaked Marden, "the Inducer...."
896 Final Session
—and then Marden fell back to reality again. The pain was unbearable. It's the very dynamism of pain and its remission, he recalled his friend Slake telling him, that propels secrets from suppression to desperate openness.
899 Final Session
"They're a ruse! No actual Corvin devices were ever deployed there."
898 Final Session
"We have their energy signatures!"
897 Final Session
"There are no Corvin devices in the Dolens," Marden cried.
902 Final Session
What have I done?
901 Final Session
He drew his head back in order to breath more easily — deep breaths, Slake had told him — but nothing gave him comfort anymore. His body was failing. Even if it wasn't, he wished it would so that he would finally be freed from this living hell. While the pleasure lasted, he dreamed of being with Amanda again. Now, he wouldn't want her to see him die like this. She would be all right without him, though. After all, the war was...
900 Final Session
The grip on Marden's hair was released, and his head sank forward. What was happening? Why hadn't Slake returned? How long had it been?
906 Final Session
No... it was only the limited range of dexterity and motion he'd been given to feed himself while Slake was present. Good, kind Slake — he'd left Marden alone, but he'd left him the dignity of at least some minor self-volition.
905 Final Session
I can move?
904 Final Session
His left arm spasmed then, flopping over the edge of the armrest.
903 Final Session
Marden turned the thought over and over in his mind. Was his recollection correct? Had he actually spent days describing the Horse Kings' operations and local defense strategy to Slake? Maybe it didn't matter. Even what he believed he had just told the general wouldn't matter. There were no Corvin devices in the Dolens Expanse; they were all in the home system. Maybe the war had flared up again, but the Coalition would never make it all the way to Cynara. It was impossible. He had no information to give that could make it possible. Whatever the worst he may have done, he would die with a clear conscience — and soon, he expected. The Coalition general was gone, meaning he would die alone. He had long feared dying alone, but now he embraced the thought.
910 Final Session
There was nothing there. A small mounting frame was bolted to the wood, but no device was present. The Inducer — the only one of its kind, Slake had told him — was gone.
909 Final Session
He struggled to move for what seemed an eternity, and eventually succeeded in slipping from the chair. He slumped to the floor on his knees, something tearing between him and the seat of the chair as he moved. Motion hurt him as much as it thrilled him. He guessed it had been weeks. His muscles felt nearly atrophied, but he managed to maneuver around to the back of the chair.
908 Final Session
The thrill of that realization cut briefly through the pain. Could he turn the Inducer back on and at least die free of pain? Would he even know the moment of his transition if he did, or would the fantasy of the Inducer simply blend into the reality of heavenly reawakening? There could be no more gentle way to go.
907 Final Session
Marden struggled for a moment to raise his left arm sufficiently to scrape away whatever was caked on his face, covering his left nostril, and found, to his astonishment, he could move everything. He could move!
913 Final Session
When Marden awoke again — when it was finally over — Amanda was there to greet him, as beautiful as in all his induced dreams. Slake had kept his word. Though Marden hadn't seen him again, he had returned Marden to his beloved Cynara. Asher had been born healthy and well-formed, though somewhat premature. Amanda said he was often restless and ill-tempered at night, but he would be fine. All was as Marden had longed for.
912 Final Session
He laid his head down and closed his eyes.
911 Final Session
Marden sank slowly to the ruined carpet, breath rasping from exertion. It hardly mattered now. He didn't need the Inducer anymore. Feeling in his legs was already gone, and he expected all sensation to soon follow. It saddened him that Slake wasn't there, but Marden sensed he had little time left for such regrets. He wanted out.
917 Final Session
The first post-war year brought fewer changes than Marden feared — far fewer than the Mutuality would have imposed on the Consortium, had they won instead. Commercial activities went on unmolested, order was maintained, thought not brutally so, and the Cardinal's Sovereign Council, though stripped of all political and military power, continued to serve as the guiding spiritual light for millions of people.
916 Final Session
In a devastating turnabout, the Coalition had pushed all the way to Cynara in a matter of days. Lightly-equipped positions that relied on misinformation and false appearances for defense crumbled under a lightning assault. At the same time, the heavy positions, ready to repel any enemy advance, were completely bypassed, and not approached until the Mutuality leadership had surrendered — all while both sides stood under the façade of a deceitful armistice. Key to the Coalition's success had been the fall of a single unit in the Dolens Expanse, known as Horse Kings.
915 Final Session
And the Mutuality had lost.
914 Final Session
The war was over.
920 Final Session
After a year of physical therapy, Marden still suffered. Muscle tissue in his legs had been ravaged by infection during his ordeal, his back hurt almost constantly, and he felt aged far beyond his years. One day, Amanda brought home something new from her job at the hospital — a new pain management system, something the other nurses called the Comforter. It was intended for use on patients who would otherwise suffer unbearably or lose themselves in a fog of chemical painkillers. It was a small box with a thin cable connected to a lightweight, padded collar that she told him to wear across the back of his neck.
919 Final Session
Marden found joy in none of it. Not even Amanda's touch and loving words in his ears could sooth his feeling that something wonderful was gone, irretrievably, from his life. Before long, her words silenced, and her touch came less often. It was a while before he even noticed.
918 Final Session
The pace of technology under Coalition leadership accelerated almost overnight, improving quality of life and prosperity for all. Medical science transformed Mutuality hospitals. Prisons became institutes of rehabilitation and restitution instead of inescapable holes of collapse and despair. Plans were soon announced for new power generation facilities to invigorate the economy and infuse a degree of Coalition luxury into nearly ascetic Mutuality culture. Cynara transformed rapidly. With the Sovereign Council no longer controlling information, few argued that the changes were for the worse.
924 Final Session
He fled their small home, and didn't go back for hours. When he did, he refused to talk about it. He had told Amanda so many of the horrible things he had done, and as he'd needed, she forgave him. But he never told her about his unintentional betrayal of Horse Kings, nor of his time with Slake, nor about the Inducer.
923 Final Session
It was the Inducer — on Cynara — on the homeworld of the Mutuality itself, the very thing which had destroyed the Mutuality. Destroyed him.
922 Final Session
—and with a rapid motion, he sprang to his feet and tore the collar loose.
921 Final Session
Within seconds of its application, the sickly trembling of his damaged legs stilled. His eyes closed, and he took deep calming breaths. His always-tense back muscles went slack and supple, and the heavy weight in his chest lifted away. He relaxed in the chair where Amanda had told him to sit, and fell blissfully into euphoria. He opened his eyes—
927 Final Session
Marden strode to the end table in three angry steps, picked up the baby monitor, and dashed it against the wall. His limbs hurt with the act — some of muscles would never fully heal — but he didn't care. The pain, at least, was real, uninduced. Asher awoke again at the ruckus, but Amanda simply thumbed her own Inducer to a higher level. In another another swift motion, Marden tore her collar free, snapping her head forward, and flung the device out the nearest open window. She glared at him in shock, as if he had torn away a part of her, then moved to the door, opened it, and ran.
926 Final Session
He came home one afternoon to find her reclined on the sofa, eyes glossing over from the euphoric bliss swirling inside her head. The activity light on her Comforter pulsed softly where she rocked it on her breast. Asher started to cry from the other room, and she listlessly reached back to the end table to trigger his Comforter Junior through the baby monitor. Asher gurgled softly back to sleep.
925 Final Session
As one year slipped into another, the Comforter began to appear throughout society, supplanting alcohol and other casual drugs as the entertainment of choice. In her increasing loneliness and isolation from her husband, Amanda bought one of the first commercial models that was available, and used it when Marden was away.
931 Final Session
Benjamin Slake stepped off the shuttle and into the oppressive heat of a Cynaran afternoon. It had been twenty years since the end of the war, and he'd chosen the worst season to make his first visit to Cynara. Time spent outdoors this time of year had to be brief to be tolerated at all. Even under the tinted canopy that shielded most of the shuttle pad, Benjamin felt he couldn't get into the air-conditioned main terminal quickly enough. Iocasta was sufficiently farther from the sun for summer to be bright and comfortable. But Benjamin hadn't come to Cynara to make himself comfortable.
930 Final Session
He paced the room quietly while he held Asher to his chest and softly hummed a lullaby.
929 Final Session
Marden walked softly into Asher's room, where his son was now wide awake, crying his vocal plea for living, human contact through the oblivious house. Marden wrapped the light blanket around Asher as he raised him from the crib. He could no longer take pleasure from anything, but he could not deny it to the one life he felt no reason to resent.
928 Final Session
Marden's soul ached. Part of him was still wasting in a low-backed chair in Premier Hosep's decadent office suite, glued to the seat by his own bacteria-laden filth and rotting in his stink. That had been real. The Mutuality had still been itself then. Sometime between when his sessions with Mister Slake began and that moment, his homeworld — socially, intellectually, and spiritually — had died.
934 Final Session
Benjamin blessedly cleared the rest of the terminal without having to interact with any other shells of humanity. Thanks to his service to the Coalition during the war, his credentials afforded him free passage through both worlds for life. He climbed into the cleanest taxi he could find, and darkened the windows to maximum tint.
933 Final Session
He had conceived of the Inducer to solve problems: To keep prisoners docile and manageable while they served out their terms. To ease the dying's departure into peace. To persuade Mutuality POWs to share their information without having to torture and maim them into broken husks. Its commercial availability stirred his fears; the surging black market in illicit programs designed to circumvent the Comforters' built-in limits confirmed them. The Coalition was doing just enough to stem the tide of rampant addiction, but nothing to undo it.
932 Final Session
Crossing the threshold to the air-conditioned interior of the shuttleport terminal, he nearly tripped over an inert form splayed against the frame of the sliding double-door. It was a man, blissed-out on his personal Comforter, who had apparently slid limply off the bench just inside the terminal. The Comforter's face panel showed three programs running simultaneously. From the soggy bulge in the front of the man's pants, Benjamin could guess the nature of those programs. He turned away in disgust.
937 Final Session
"Thank you. Fastest route, or most scenic?"
936 Final Session
"Private residence: Kupp, Marden Allen."
935 Final Session
"Destination, please?" asked the taxi.
940 Final Session
Marden sat with his low-backed chair turned to face out the studio apartment's wall-wide bay window. The cheap, garish rug was nearly worn through to the floor where the chair legs had rubbed for years of Marden's solitary fidgeting. The ventilator pumped some economy store fragrance — Spring Holiday, or some such crap — into the single room domicile, as it had for years, though Marden could no longer smell it. The ivy hanging in the corner was the only sign of life in the room.
939 Final Session
Benjamin cradled his face in hands. No answer mattered. Eventually the taxi would proceed on a route of its own choosing. He really didn't care.
938 Final Session
Benjamin looked around. Most scenic of what? Residence towers full of blissed-out zombies? Who was there to even care about scenery here? Only Coalition government staff, he knew, who, like any successful pushers, knew better than to indulge in their own stock.
943 Final Session
Marden almost ignored it. He rarely had visitors, and no one he cared to see. Amanda had left him over nineteen years ago, and he never expected her to come back. Asher, too, was long since gone, migrated to Iocasta for work. There was little to be had here anymore, little with any future, anyway. Marden had urged Asher not to go; not to put himself where a young man had few honorable ways to make a living and far too many dishonorable ones. Asher had argued that the work to be had offworld was real, that the perverts would be too busy with their sex programs to try to stick anything into a real body, and that there was nothing but degeneracy to be found on Cynara anymore anyway.
942 Final Session
There was a gentle rapping on the door.
941 Final Session
Marden's disability pension, combined with his strangely overgenerous veteran's pay that the Coalition continued to deposit to his account, could have bought him much, much more. To no one else's understanding, however, this small room was the one place Marden had found where he felt comfortable.
946 Final Session
Whoever was at the door had better be worth it.
945 Final Session
He strained against poorly-restored muscle tissue and weakened ligaments to stand. A decade of physical therapy hadn't accomplished much before Marden gave up on it. As a result, his body was little better now than it had been when he was at his weakest.
944 Final Session
He frowned slightly when the rapping sounded at the door again. Most people used their ID tags to announce themselves to the suite. A knock was positively anachronistic.
947 Final Session
Benjamin waited patiently. If Marden's apartment used active scanning, he already knew who was at his door. If not, he may still be walking to it. Benjamin had perused Marden's docket briefly before departing on the shuttle; he knew a broken man lived behind the door.
951 Final Session
"Who is it?" asked the man inside.
950 Final Session
It only parted a few centimeters.
949 Final Session
The door creaked; its thermal stripping snapped away raggedly as it opened, having not been opened at all for quite some time.
948 Final Session
Maybe he's loading a gun, Marden speculated. Maybe he'll just shoot me clean through the door.
955 Final Session
There was a long, long silence. The door moved subtly in and out, in and out, as if with the breathing of the man on the other side. Eventually, it swung open completely, and Benjamin was allowed entrance.
954 Final Session
"It's Benjamin Slake."
953 Final Session
He cleared his throat.
952 Final Session
Benjamin exhaled. "You may call me Mister— " Good lord, he thought, stopping himself. Where in heaven's name did that come from?
958 Final Session
"I thought I might see you again someday," said Marden, his back to Benjamin.
957 Final Session
The open door permitted an unobstructed view into the spartan dwelling. Marden was only about a third of the way back to his chair. The familiarity of the setting aroused the deepest sympathy in Benjamin.
956 Final Session
He took a single, uncertain step into the room. He had purposefully travelled millions of kilometers to be here, and now, on the threshold, he hesitated.
961 Final Session
"Yes. In my waking hours, I've wanted to kill you. In my dreams..."
960 Final Session
"Did you?"
959 Final Session
Benjamin looked around the room, suddenly realizing there was nowhere for him to sit. The chair that Marden sank stiffly into was the only furniture in the room. There was a seam in the wall where a hideaway bed must have been stored, but Benjamin left it alone.
965 Final Session
"No," Benjamin agreed, choking on the word. "I did it to you. Using the Inducer was entirely my idea. It was the only thing that could overcome Mutuality conditioning."
964 Final Session
"No, you did quite enough of that twenty years ago. And don't you dare tell me I did it to myself."
963 Final Session
"You don't have to tell me, Marden. I didn't come to make you uncomfortable."
962 Final Session
Marden's voice trailed off. Benjamin couldn't tell if he were even trying to speak, or just barely vocalizing something he couldn't say.
968 Final Session
"I know, Marden. I am sorry."
967 Final Session
"Well, let me tell you, Mister Slake. You did considerably more to me than overcome my conditioning. You murdered my entire world through me. You didn't turn me into a vegetable after all, but you did everyone else."
966 Final Session
Marden may have been laughing; Benjamin wasn't sure.
971 Final Session
"My home doesn't exist anymore. Whatever high-minded, humanistic ideals the Coalition once held have dissolved into depravity and exploitation of the rich over the poor, the strong over the weak, the majority over whatever minority it wants to abuse. The Coalition has become the decadent monstrosity the Mutualists always believed it was."
970 Final Session
Benjamin, his limbs stiff not from torture but from age and from his own casual failure to ever do anything physically difficult, kneeled humbly on the cheap, plastic-fiber rug behind Marden.
969 Final Session
Again, Marden was silent for a long time. "Is that it? You're sorry? You're the one man who brought down the Mutuality — other than myself. You're one of the only people who knows my part in the fall. So you tell me you're sorry and now you're going to go home?"
974 Final Session
Still Marden said nothing, though Benjamin took his silence as a self-assured, I told you so.
973 Final Session
"The few who ever questioned where Coalition society was headed were sidelined, and eventually silenced, long ago. Premier Hosep was our last, best hope. Had he not fallen in the assault on Prime, he may have been able to prevent the decay."
972 Final Session
Marden simply sat and listened while Benjamin confessed.
978 Final Session
"I wanted you to know, he... "
977 Final Session
Marden straightened somewhat at that.
976 Final Session
"It's about your son, Mister Kupp."
975 Final Session
"Why are you here, Mister Slake?"
981 Final Session
"He passed away in a fire while saving others," Slake said, choosing to tell a story that was not the truth for the first time in his life. "He didn't suffer. After he got most of the survivors to safety, he returned to the source of the fire to extinguish it. He ultimately saved the entire ship, but inadvertently trapped himself in an area where no oxygen remained. It would have been a peaceful death. He would have simply gone to sleep."
980 Final Session
My God, was I really going to come here and tell him that?
979 Final Session
He died. He was physically small, so the highest-paying paying job he could find that didn't involve the sex trade was going into mine shafts where the robotic probes and drillers were too dumb, clumsy, or sensory-impaired to be of any use. He became stuck in a shaft. He could conceivably have been rescued, and may, in fact, have lived for some time, but the only rescue options available would have either cost too much money or maimed him to the point that he would no longer be useful after rescue.
984 Final Session
"Mister Ku — Marden. I am am terribly, indescribably sorry for what I did to you twenty years ago. What's left of me today was sickened as I was doing it. If I had to make any judgment on the ruin of my own society that my cleverness brought about, it has to be that justice was finally served."
983 Final Session
Benjamin swallowed hard against a lump rising in his throat.
982 Final Session
Marden nodded slowly. He sighed. "You told me you would never lie to me. I have no reason to disbelieve you now."
985 Final Session
Marden sighed. "Is that what you came here to say? That, and that my son is dead? Millions of kilometers, at this time of year, to let your lowest victim know that now he really does have nothing left to live for?"
986 Final Session
Benjamin's thoughts and hands went to the modified Inducer he carried inside his jacket. No, the benevolent lie to Marden was not all he came for.
989 Final Session
Marden turned around to look at him then. Benjamin recognized the same, sincere face from twenty years earlier and a planet away, devoted to his beliefs and his society and truly disbelieving that the many little mundanities he could spill about his strike team could be exploited to bring about the end of his world.
988 Final Session
Benjamin withdrew the Inducer. "Marden, what I did to your life — your world — I did to my own. I am in a position to offer you very little. But... I have to atone for what I've done. Whether you accept my offer or not, I must do for myself."
987 Final Session
"...because if it was, you've removed the last reason I had to keep myself alive. I should thank you for that."
990 Final Session
"I want out, Mister Slake," Marden snapped. His next words were softer, more honest. More accepting. "I've wanted out for a very long time. Can you offer me that?"
991 Final Session
Benjamin swallowed hard, but the emotion welled up despite. "As a matter of fact, I can. If you choose to let me. You were a good soldier, Marden. Look at your society — no one resists the Inducer. You held out longer than anyone. You lasted weeks before you even started to tell me the things I needed to know."
994 Final Session
Benjamin squeezed his eyes shut tightly then, but it didn't matter. His tears escaped nonetheless. "I love you, Marden."
993 Final Session
"I've lost everything," Marden whispered into his hands, almost too softly for Benjamin to hear. "Everything I ever loved. Everyone who ever loved me."
992 Final Session
Marden slowly slumped forward. His shoulders trembled with each short, rasping breath, as he tried not to cry.

Final Session - a speculative fiction novelette

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Written at Orson Scott Card's Writing Bootcamp in 2006, Scott generously declared this story a career-launcher, "a very delicate thing created during a sledge-hammer of a week."  His praise may have over-elevated my expectations of success, but it was an invaluable shot of affirmation and I'm thankful to him for it.  Some have asked if I deliberately set out to make them uncomfortable while they were reading it.  No.  I deliberately set out to make myself uncomfortable while writing it.