“They’ve done it now,” Frela, one of Kara’s favorite regulars, said from her usual place behind a whisky tumbler. Frela’s voice sounded full of disbelief, though the evidence of the vidscreen seemed incontrovertible.
Here in Kara’s Place, the tavern Kara had opened so proudly in the business district of Trest and had kept successful for the last five years in a cutthroat world, her own vidscreen bore the terrible news.
Planet Surrenders to Magisterian Dominion.
“We had it coming,” Unna, one of Frela’s lawyer friends who came in less often but tipped very well, said sadly, after pulling a long sip from her own glass. “We invaded three of their planets and fucked them up pretty good, didn’t we?”
Kara shook her head and concentrated on running her towel over the synth-oak of her already gleaming bar. Her proud, independent colony, rugged-but-beautiful Hippolyta whose terraforming had only ended ten years before and whose future had seemed so bright, now a possession of the Magisterian assholes who kept the rest of the galaxy begging at their feet for the gravitium that alone made interstellar travel a feasible proposition.
“Turn it up?” Frela asked, as the vidscreen began to show a report from a journalist outside the parliament building only a few blocks from Kara’s Place. Numbly, Kara complied, pulling the remote from under the bar and thumbing the volume up five notches.
“…just now,” the reporter said to the camera. “The prime minister emphasized that the treaty has not yet been finalized, but confirmed that Magisterian war reparations will be imposed on Hippolyta beginning as soon as next week.”
All three women—Kara and her two patrons—looked at the man seated a few stools down the bar. Kara thought she recognized him, but he hadn’t turned up often enough for her to ask his name. Odds definitely favored him being an attorney, just like Frela and Unna. He looked like a decent guy for a lawyer drinking alone on a Tuesday afternoon.
He had focused on the vidscreen like the other three occupants of Kara’s Place, and now he lowered his eyes and noticed the women looking at him. His eyes went wide with sardonic mock-alarm.
“Don’t look at me, ladies,” he said, lifting his glass to his lips to drain its final half-finger. “I was born and raised here.”
The journalist’s voice went on from above. “We’re getting reports now of Magisterian reparations squads moving through Trest. If this conquest mirrors the Magisterians’ tactics on other worlds, they will want to begin by making an example of the capital. The prime minister pleaded for calm just now, and asked the people of Trest to return home, if possible, and to remain there until further notice. When the war-reparations program formally begins, he said, women will be probably be required to register with the Magisterian occupation authority, but no plans for registration have—”
A loud bang from the other end of the bar drowned out the sound from the vidscreen. Kara turned to see what asshole had opened her expensive, heavy street door so violently. Her eyes went wide with alarm. Two tall men in riot gear, wielding stun batons, had stepped into the tavern. An officer in an unmistakable green uniform followed them, looking down at a handheld as he walked.
The officer raised his eyes to look at Kara with an icy, impersonal stare.
“Kara Hannafin?” he asked.
Kara glanced at Frela, as if she might appeal to her attorney for help. Gamely, though she swallowed hard in evident alarm before she spoke, Frela turned to the Magisterian.
“What’s this about?” she asked. “I’m Frela Jacobus, Ms. Hannafin’s attorney.”
The officer glanced at the handheld again. “Thank you,” he said rather strangely. Then he looked at Unna. “Unna Werth?” he asked. “Also an attorney?”
Unna looked over at Frela, before she said quietly, “Yes.”
“All three of you,” the officer said, nodding, “get your clothes off, please.” Before Kara had any time to react, he spoke again, into the handheld. “You can bring the camera crew in.”
Time seemed to stand still for a moment as Kara locked eyes with Frela. Then the street door opened again and two more Magisterian men entered, one with a camera and the other with what Kara thought must be broadcast equipment.
“What… what is this?” Frela demanded, her effort to sound authoritative faltering a little but still making Kara feel a little more confident.
The officer glanced up at the vidscreen as if to confirm that the occupants of Kara’s Place should know very well that their planet had just become subject to Magisterian war reparations. Then he said, “Frela, take your clothes off or my men will do it for you.”
“I would prefer you call me Ms. Jacobus,” Frela said sharply, “and if you think I’m going to obey that ridiculous order you’re sadly mistaken.”
To Kara’s amazed horror, the Magisterian laughed.
“Frela, honey,” he said, the honey sounding somehow infinitely more degrading even than his belittling use of her first name, “no one’s going to call you Ms. Jacobus again, for a very long time—if they ever do.”
This abstract, detached declaration of the change the Magisterian occupiers would bring to Hippolyta chilled Kara. She had thought at first that Frela and Unna, as attorneys, would constitute the perfect team to defend them all from whatever stupid macho bullshit the Magisterian ‘reparations squad’ had planned. As the cameraman moved forward to focus his lens on Frela’s white, shocked face, though, Kara decided that her own extra-legal bartender style might suit the moment better.
In any case, her anger got the better of her fear, when she heard the officer laugh.
“You can just get your Magisterian asses out of my bar,” she said. “I’m pretty sure we still have rights, because Hippolyta just surrendered.”
She glared into the amused face of the officer, suddenly remembering something she had gleaned, to her comfort, from the previous day’s bad news.
“The Magisterian Dominion guarantees the continuation of the basic civil rights of its subject worlds,” she said triumphantly, turning to the camera that now focused on her, a smile on the cameraman’s face probably indicating that he thought Kara’s assertion of her rights made good video. “That’s what I heard anyway. So unless you want to order a drink to welcome you to the great city of Trest on the beautiful world of Hippolyta, I’d like you to leave.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Frela and Unna exchange an uneasy look. Kara wondered if she had missed something in the news that applied to this particular situation—something that made the high-powered attorneys less confident of Kara’s position than she herself felt. Or had felt, before she saw that look.
The expression on the officer’s face removed some of her remaining confidence, though she tried to keep the defiant expression on her face.
“I’m afraid, Kara,” he said, “that you haven’t heard the details of the war-reparations portion of the treaty. It’s all very complicated, but a pretty girl like you doesn’t need to understand it. Right now, a pretty girl like you needs to take off her clothes and show everyone what her body looks like.” He turned to Frela and Unna. “The same goes for you girls. You won’t have to worry about intricate legal matters anymore. You’re going to be happy little war brides, from now on.”
Kara swallowed hard, and looked at the lawyers, who sat frozen on their stools, faces a matching shade of crimson. The sound of a throat clearing at the other end of the bar drew her attention, and she turned to see that the other occupant of the bar—the man who had said that as a Hippolytan he bore no blame for what the Magisterians did—had risen from his stool.
The officer glanced down at his handheld as if to confirm his memory, then said, “Mr. Gregor Blanco?”
Kara felt her brow furrow at the respectful tone the Magisterian used with the man, and its contrast with his manner toward the women. Her own face began to get hot, as if to match the cheeks of Frela and Unna.
“That’s me,” the man said, frowning. “I would like—”
“Attorney?” the officer asked. “Litigator, I think?”
“That’s right,” Gregor confirmed, sounding annoyed at the interruption. “I’d like to go, please. I’ll be going straight to the police station down the block, to report your conduct as a war crime. The treaty may give your forces the right to choose women for the war-reparations program, but it doesn’t let you walk indiscriminately into a place of business and—”
“Ah, but Mr. Blanco,” said the officer, “this visit isn’t indiscriminate at all.”
Kara found she had warmed considerably to Gregor, especially by contrast to the infuriating behavior of the Magisterians. The sudden hope the litigator had awakened, though, turned to new alarm now, as she watched the officer address the camera directly.
“Hi, folks, I’m Colonel James Regan, coming to you from a little tavern in the city of Trest. This is the first broadcast of a brand new series going out to everyone on Hippolyta and back home on Magisteria. We’re calling it War Brides, and the lucky Hippolytans in Kara’s Place are just now discovering that they’re the first people on their planet to star in our show.”
Gregor, confusion and anger mingling on his face, stepped forward, toward the colonel, his hands up as if he might throw a punch. One of the Magisterian soldiers stepped forward with his baton raised, and put his other hand on Gregor’s business-suited chest. Kara’s head swiveled back and forth: though the scene seemed to play out in slow motion, it also somehow moved too fast for her to figure out exactly what had happened, let alone what would happen now.
“What…” Unna said, shaking her head.
“What the hell does that mean?” Frela demanded.
“This one is named Frela,” said Colonel Regan. To Kara’s horror, he put out his hand to touch her cheek. Frela angrily slapped it aside. The officer turned to the soldiers. “Take her clothes off. Rip them if you have to.” Then he spoke to the camera again. “Frela here was a lawyer until today. Look at that sweet body, though, and those big tits. Why should they be covered up in a professional gal’s business suit?”
Everyone but the Magisterians seemed rooted to their place in alarm and disbelief. Then, just as Frela stood up from her barstool and began to look around for some way to escape, the second soldier stepped forward, grabbed her, and spun her around, facing the bar, then pushed her up against it.
He grabbed the collar of her expensive black blazer and pulled down very hard, so that Frela’s arms got yanked back behind her. Frela cried out and struggled, but though Kara knew the beautiful twenty-seven-year-old worked out three times a week, her strength could do nothing against that of the tall, muscular soldier. The blazer fell to the floor, and the soldier reached for the collar of Frela’s cream-colored silk blouse.
“No, goddammit,” the lawyer shouted.
Gregor’s eyes told Kara that he knew he couldn’t stop whatever atrocity the Magisterians had planned, but he surged forward anyway, managing to push the other soldier aside as he tried to get to the one taking off Frela’s clothes. The stun baton of the soldier he had just pushed, though, came down hard across the Hippolytan’s shoulders, and Gregor’s body jerked with the electric current, his knees buckling as he stumbled to the floor.
“Gregor Blanco,” said the colonel, “you are hereby assigned as the master of these three war brides—Frela, Unna, and Kara. They don’t have surnames any longer, so you will know them as Gregor’s Frela, Gregor’s Unna, and Gregor’s Kara.”
Kara’s jaw dropped, and the heat surged in her face as the Magisterian officer turned back to the camera.
“On this first episode of War Brides,” he said jovially, “you’re going to get to see Gregor learn how to put his girls in their place.”
Gregor’s body jerked with the painful aftershocks of the stun baton. He had known, as an intelligent man couldn’t help knowing, it would happen: the painful and humiliating stroke across his back.
He had charged the soldier stripping Frela Jacobus in Kara’s Place anyway.
Had he done it out of principle, or out of sheer, if righteous, anger, Gregor wondered as he sank to his knees, rendered unable to do anything else by the agony ripping through his limbs? Fifty-fifty, maybe, or maybe forty-nine percent principle and fifty-one percent anger; he did his best to keep his temper in check, but stuff that just wasn’t right always seemed to get the better of his self-control.
As he looked up helplessly at the stripping of Frela’s blouse, pearl buttons popping off all over the bar, Gregor tried to process what the Magisterian colonel had just said—the part about the video show and the part beginning with I hereby twisting and braiding confusingly in his thoughts. He couldn’t seem to figure out whether he had just become a contestant on a perverse alien game show or he had been inducted into the Magisterian armed forces.
His eyes met Kara’s then, and he saw the red in her cheeks, and her evident embarrassment seemed to sort out the humiliating declarations made by the colonel. In truth, Gregor hadn’t rushed the soldier for Frela’s sake as much as for Kara’s. He had started coming to Kara’s Place a month ago, after moving to Trest, and he had developed an almost boyish crush on the tavern’s independent, occasionally foul-mouthed owner. Seeing her rendered so helpless in her own barroom, as she watched a patron assaulted by a soldier, brought out the white knight in Gregor—or whatever element of white knight remained in a lawyer who had sold his soul to a major corporation’s office of general counsel.
“Gregor,” the colonel said, once Frela’s pretty blouse lay on the floor, and the lacy back of a pink bra had been revealed across the attorney’s white back. “How does it feel to be the owner of three pretty girls?”
The officer regarded Gregor from above, as the cameraman brought his lens closer. For a moment, Gregor couldn’t think of anything to do or say but look up with angry and smoldering resentment. Then, trying to keep his temper so that he could avoid another blow from the stun baton that still loomed over him, he said, as calmly as he could manage, “I’m going to decline that honor. Hippolytan citizens don’t own one another, whatever their conquerors say.”
Gregor’s eyes went back to Kara for a moment, and he almost smiled to see that his words seemed to have made her own lovely features firm. Kara’s heart-shaped face and mischievous blue eyes, framed by a rather casually cut crop of golden hair, always seemed to make Gregor’s heart rise when he looked at her across the bar. Petite but fiery—Gregor’s type, though really he had only had one serious girlfriend back home, having worked his way to twenty-eight with his eyes firmly on the big-city prize that he had at last won only a month before.
He had started to relax, in that month, and to look around him. Kara’s Place had served as a wonderful spot for that looking—Kara herself, and her afternoon drinking friends redheaded Frela and light-brown-haired Unna chief among the sights. With a cushy job, all of a sudden, Gregor could easily adjust his habit to stop by for a good scotch twice a week.
All which circumstances now made his resentment of Colonel Regan, his grunts, his camera crew, and the entire Magisterian Dominion grow so hot in his chest as nearly to choke his words. Gregor didn’t doubt that Hippolyta’s new occupiers had scraped surveillance data off the interior department’s database, to make the ‘determination’ to which the colonel had referred. He wondered how many nanoseconds it had taken their algorithm to identify the grouping of a twenty-eight-year-old male lawyer, two slightly younger female lawyers, and a female bartender younger still by one year.
What seemed harder to know, and made his anger burn the hottest, was whether that algorithm had looked back to see Gregor’s behavior over the past few weeks. Whether the brand-new Magisterian occupation authority had identified him for this humiliation because he evidently had a crush on Kara Hannafin.
“I’m afraid it’s not something you can decline, Gregor,” the colonel said, his voice full of mock solicitousness. “The treaty that just got signed creates a new category of law, applying only to the Hippolytans chosen for the war-reparations program, though of course, that can be any Hippolytan determined by Magisteria to need a lesson in obedience.”
“That’s bullshit,” Kara said, tossing her head. Gregor had a momentary flash of alarm—if he had inspired her defiance, which would certainly draw retribution from the colonel, maybe he should simply have submitted himself, impossibly shameful as that seemed. “What makes you think we need anything a Magisterian can give us?”
That made the colonel laugh, and his mirth sent a wave of hot frustration through Gregor’s body. It took most of his willpower to stay down on his knees on the hard floor of the tavern.
“Well, Gregor’s Kara,” the officer said, “I think you just showed our audience precisely why you need the lesson we’re here to get started. The more interesting answer to your question, though, which will also benefit everyone watching at home, is that you four have been identified by semi-random selection…”
“What the fuck is semi-random selection?” Frela spat, turning her head to glare at the officer, though the soldier held her up against the bar, his hand hooked into the back of her suit pants as if awaiting the order to pull them down.
Frela and Unna, both hotshot attorneys at a big corporate firm, had ranked highly on Gregor’s private list of peers he wanted to meet, especially because they hung out with Kara. Frela had the fiery personality that suited her hair and wore pantsuits to match. Unna, hyper-intelligent, tended to adopt a more contemplative air. She wore dresses, too, generally, like the expensive-looking blue one she had on today. Gregor would take Kara’s jeans and black t-shirt any day of the week, but he certainly didn’t mind looking at more fashionably dressed girls when the opportunity presented itself.
Now, though, the urges in his body and his mind all seemed too mixed up to give any reliable indication of what he might do—how he could help the three young women to whom fate and Magisteria had apparently tied him. At the moment, it didn’t seem anything would do much good, especially from him: when the colonel had called Kara Gregor’s Kara, Unna had shot him a resentful look, as if Gregor had demanded the girl be referred to that way.
He got another look like that, this time from both Frela and Kara, as Colonel Regan answered the redheaded woman’s indignant question.
“Gregor’s Frela, thanks for asking that question, though you asked it in such a naughty way. I’m going to answer it, but only after we have your pants down and the audience gets a good look at you in your pretty underwear.”
Both lawyers’ attention went from Gregor to the Magisterians, then, not only because of the colonel’s response but also because the soldier with his hand in Frela’s suit pants ripped them down with a loud sound of tearing seams, showing that Frela’s thong panties matched her lacy bra. Gregor’s breathing sped up a bit at the sight—how could he help it? Big-chested Frela’s violin-curve hips and trim backside in the narrow back of the thong made his cock swell between his legs, just as it would for any guy interested in beautiful women.
The look on Kara’s face, though, turned Gregor on even more, very much despite the nobler impulses in his mind: her lips had parted as she watched Frela stripped, and the color came and went in her cheeks now, as if her own body couldn’t help responding in sympathy to her friend’s humiliation. Gregor wanted somehow to tell his body to shut up, as he tried to think through the meaning of having these lovely young women referred to as Gregor’s.
The colonel had no interest in helping him, obviously. His next order to the soldier handling Frela made Gregor’s predicament even greater.
“Put her on the bar,” the Magisterian said. “On her back. Gregor here is going to get a taste of what nice, big tits feel like.”
Gregor felt his eyes go wide. The colonel’s words suggested that the Magisterian algorithm had gone so far as to study his previous romantic history, somehow. Did it know that he had dated small-breasted women to this point?
Kara tried to lunge across the bar, now, as if like Gregor her anger had gotten the best of her. “No, don’t,” he tried to shout to her, knowing too well what a Magisterian stun baton felt like, but before he could open his mouth the colonel himself had reached out with a little device that must do the same thing in a smaller, less intimidating package.
A sound like a tiny sizzle, and a helpless little cry from Kara, and the pretty bartender had slumped down, her slender fingers scrabbling at the edge of the heavy oak top of her bar.
“We’re saving you for last, Gregor’s Kara,” the colonel said. He turned to the camera, which had moved from Frela, struggling weakly in the soldier’s arms, to him. “We’re pretty sure that Gregor, who now owns all three of these pretty girls, has a romantic interest in this one, folks.”
Kara, who had managed to climb weakly to her feet, stared at Gregor with wide eyes. He tried to scowl, because he couldn’t think of what other expression he might put on his face, and she frowned in confusion.
“These four attractive Hippolytans,” Colonel Regan went on, “are going to have to learn a new way of thinking about how men and women should relate to one another—a much more Magisterian way.”
He turned to Unna, then, and said, “Get your clothes off, Gregor’s Unna. You’re next for inspection. Now let’s get Gregor’s Frela on the bar and have some fun.”
Frela had tears of rage in her eyes as the soldier turned her around and with the colonel’s help easily lifted her up and laid her atop the surface from which the cameraman swept the glasses with a crash that made Kara wince.
“I’m going to make you all pay for this,” the redheaded lawyer said through clenched teeth. “I’ll find you, and I’ll end you.”
Colonel Regan tsked as he pulled off Frela’s shoes and socks, quite slowly, tenderly, and lovingly it appeared to Gregor, though of course the delicacy was clearly meant in irony. When he had the woman in her lingerie alone, her body tense in the grip of the soldier upon her shoulders, holding her down on the bar, the officer spoke again.
“That will be enough of that, Gregor’s Frela. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask your master to discipline you after he inspects you. You will learn not to worry about the future, soon enough, though. Happy war brides know that they need only do as they’re told, and their masters will spare the rod—across their disobedient backsides, anyway.”
The soldiers and the camera crew laughed heartily at that. Gregor’s eyes met Kara’s again, and he tried as hard as he could to say that, yes, he liked her very much, but no, he didn’t want any of this. Kara’s brow had furrowed, as if she wanted to understand what Gregor’s expression meant, but he had to be content with that, since the colonel addressed him next.
“Get up, Gregor,” the officer said. “Have a good look at your new property.”