Behaviorism, Arjun Saatia
Zara Envada wasn’t prone to panic or nervousness. Or any kind of fear at all, actually. She didn’t see much point to it. But one who was more inclined towards fits of hysterical panic and terror might have to admit that in this case, she was maybe, just slightly, moderately fucked.
For one thing, it had been a very trying day. She was missing her grandmother’s ninety-ninth birthday, she was tired from not sleeping, she’d missed breakfast so she hadn’t eaten anything in hours, her arms hurt from being yanked behind her and handcuffed to a desk, and her best friend had just confessed to her that he maybe sort of had non-platonic feelings in her direction, which she was wildly conflicted about, since she hadn’t had a serious relationship since Joanne and wasn’t sure if she was even capable of falling in love with someone else.
For another thing—well, again, she was handcuffed to a desk. That seemed like the type of thing she should probably consider being a little worried about.
The laws determined by the Grand Coalition to govern Earth’s population in the 25th century had been forced to change rather radically after the entirety of human society had moved from dry land to the ocean floor. Pollution regulations had been strengthened, tax rules altered, limits on production had been set in place, and safety laws were much more strongly enforced. One can’t be too careful when one lives in steel and plexiglass domes miles under the ocean alongside terrifying creatures with too many legs. But, much to the dismay of many, the wealth disparity that had contributed to the destruction of their homes on land persisted down under. As did, to Zara’s current distress, laws against trying to forcibly correct that disparity by stealing cargo shipments of necessities and giving them to people other than their intended recipients. Hence her predicament.
As a former employee of the Nautical Anthropological Scientific Association (NASA for short) and current member of the Rebellious Agents of Development Brigade (RAD Brigade for short, people liked a good acronym, what could she say), Zara was used to getting into difficult situations. RAD Brigade had contingencies for this exact type of thing. The cuffs that were currently holding her captive were magnetized, and the Brigade had developed neat armbands that had an identical magnetic charge. Bring the armbands close enough to the seam of the cuffs, and they’d be forced open. Unfortunately, someone had gotten caught wearing one of them on their wrist, had it confiscated, and was sent to jail. So, in order to avoid such a fate, Zara had put the bands high up on her biceps, under her clothes, where they were less likely to be found, and very far away from the handcuffs. Useless.
There was also the added problem of the fact that the officer who had arrested her wasn’t an idiot, and had cuffed her hands behind her back and around the leg of his desk. Not being an idiot, he had not done the one-cuff-on-the-hand-one-on-the-desk-leg thing, which would have allowed her to escape much more easily. Also, he had cuffed her to a desk instead of a chair, which she could have just taken with her and walked out. Also, the desk was bolted to the floor. Not ideal.
It also was not ideal that Jon had told her about his potential feelings right before they’d started this particular mission, because now that was bouncing around her brain in the space where escape plans should be. He was her best friend, sure. But she wasn’t even sure if she was technically broken up from her last relationship. When you’re running for your life and haven’t seen or spoken to your partner in almost three years, things tended to get a little dicey.
The last time she’d seen Joanne had been after a particular situation that had involved a swarm of giant twelve-foot long spider crabs intent on prying open the walls of one badly reinforced and undefended farming dome at the edge of the Adriatic. The situation had also involved Captain Jefferson of the NASA exploratory submarine Jeremiah refusing to do anything substantial to help this undefended dome, because protocol dictated that endangered species, such as twelve-foot long spider crabs, needed to be protected. Which had resulted in Zara cornering said captain to soundly yell at him about it, then whacking the aforementioned captain on the head with a socket wrench when he refused to listen to her. She then commandeered the submarine, encountering very little resistance from the crew, and mounted an attack on the spider crabs, saving the lives of, oh, three hundred people. Naturally, there were consequences for that sort of thing, and once Captain Jefferson woke up (no worse for wear but spitting mad, for some reason) she was stripped of rank on the spot and confined to quarters (despite the fact that all two hundred fifty crew members agreed that she had been in the right), with the promise of being jailed upon their return to NASA’s headquarters.
Joanne had come to her room an hour later. “Pack your things,” she’d instructed. “We’re getting you out of here.”
While they were preparing for her grand escape, their friends were clearing the way. Mark was pulling pipes out of walls as an excuse to empty the hallway. Joseph was rerouting security feeds. Seema was keeping the first mate distracted with questions about her thesis, and Dr. Jacobs was running scans on Captain Jefferson’s injury for longer than was medically necessary. Joanne told her all of this very quickly as they hurried along the empty halls to an airlock chamber where a group from RAD Brigade had attached their pod. The Jeremiah had been hosting the unit for the past few days while they fixed their engine. Zara had helped them out herself.
NASA wasn’t strictly against the rebels, just indifferent. Which meant that they’d let them stop in for repairs or give out occasional supplies, but wouldn’t go out of their way to help or anything. Not like they had almost unlimited government funding and plenty of supplies to spare. And god forbid they ever take a stance on anything.
“They’ll take you wherever you need to go,” Joanne said, glancing over her shoulder. “Stay with them for a little while—if you try to go back to any of the domes too soon you’ll probably get ID’d. We…probably shouldn’t try to contact each other. They’ll be able to trace you eventually, no matter how we route it.”
“Right,” said Zara, swallowing hard. “So, this is it, then?”
“Yeah,” said Joanne, biting her lip. “I guess it is.”
One of the members of the Brigade—Frank, she thought his name was—who had been watching from a polite distance, cleared his throat. “We really should get moving.”
“I’ll give our friends your best,” said Joanne. “You…you should go.” She gave her a quick hug, kissed her cheek, and left, closing the door behind her.
It was barely a goodbye, but it was all she got.
Zara went into the pod, took a seat near the back, put her head in her hands, and tried very hard not to have a mental breakdown.
She stayed there as the others in the pod disengaged itself from the bigger submarine, and set off on their course to wherever they were headed. A few minutes later, someone sat next to her. “Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.
She raised her head. It was Jon, the one she’d been helping with repairs over the past few days. The others were solicitously ignoring her, but he, annoyingly, had taken it upon himself to check on her. How considerate of him. She was instantly suspicious.
“No,” she said, and turned away with intent to continue wallowing.
Jon, unfortunately, did not allow her to continue her panic-spiraling in peace. “You know, what you did back there—standing up to your captain—it was impressive,” he said. “You’ve got a solid moral conscience, and you’re clearly smart as hell. We could use someone like you.”
And so it went that she ended up as part of a revolutionary group, who specialized in stealing and smuggling supplies to the domes not inhabited by wealthy people, and trying to make enough noise to attract the attention of the Coalition, to hopefully get some laws changed and get enough public funding circulating so that the world’s working class population didn’t have to worry about having their homes flooded and destroyed every time anything bigger than a school of manta rays came to visit. The fact that she’d been picked up almost immediately upon their arrival in Adriatica meant that their movement was annoying the right people at last.
She had to admit, seeing her face on a WANTED poster for the first time had been pretty gratifying. Unfortunately, it had led to her current predicament, unable to do anything about either of her potential suitors, since she was handcuffed to a desk.
Joanne was always very serious. Most of her jokes were intellectual humor, or from niche academia. (Which Zara had taken upon herself to learn all about, so she could keep up. She wasn’t a quitter.) Joanne was reserved. Quiet. Followed the rules, most of the time. Incredibly smart, and could devastate you with one quirk of her eyebrow.
Jon was the opposite of Joanne in every way. He was very friendly, always up for an adventure, wildly overprotective, incredibly funny, kind. With him, things felt…safe. She could let her guard down around him, didn’t have to project the image of the strong, witty, un-shakable and invincible hero that she was around the others.
Well, okay, most of that wasn’t a projection. Ninety-four percent of the time, that was real. She could, and often did, beat ass when the occasion called for it (and sometimes when it didn’t). But the other six percent—it was nice to have someone who got her. Especially if that someone had a really nice smile. And thick, dark, wavy hair. And warm brown eyes. And strong, broad shoulders that—
Focus, Envada. Escape now. Think about your best friend’s very nice shoulders later.
Ugh, this was all so stupid! She was Privateer Zara “Asskicker” Envada, scourge of the high seas, a literal wanted criminal, a Priority One political target, world-famous mutineer with a license to kill (in Times New Roman, thank you very much) and she was getting hung up over some guy.
Maybe it was because she hadn’t dated a man in a while. She’d just forgotten how. There were different rules for women. Maybe different breakup rules, too. If she were technically still with Joanne, then none of this would be an issue. Also, upon hearing Jon’s declaration of intent, she had given him a thumbs up and sprinted out of there like she had a six-gill shark on her tail, so that might not be an issue anymore, either. That would take care of the problem. Unless this was a problem she wanted to have…?
FOCUS, ENVADA. ESCAPE NOW. BE CONFUSED ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS LATER.
The handcuffs were around her wrist. The armband that could open the handcuffs was on her upper arm. Her goal: get the upper arm to the handcuffs.
Zara scooted herself downward, awkwardly trying to reposition herself in order to get her arms into the appropriate positions. She stretched her arms out behind her as straight as she could, pressed her wrists against the floor to keep the cuffs from moving, and attempted to inch her arms backwards. She kept shuffling until she was practically lying on the floor, with her arms winched uncomfortably up behind her due to the limited range of motion the cuffs granted her.
Well, she thought, rather embarrassedly, at least no one can see me doing this. I’ll make it much more dramatic when I report back to the others. Especially Jon. Put in something about a tazer, maybe a fencing match—ooh! Fencing match with electric batons. That’ll sound impressive.
Now lying flat on the ground, arms cuffed around the leg of a desk, raised agonizingly back behind her head, she just had to get the magnetized section of the armband to the seal of the handcuff. Which, according to a thorough investigation (read: wiggling her arms back and forth) appeared to be on the opposite side of her arm.
Desperately hoping that the act of doing this wouldn’t dislocate her one of her shoulders (again), she sucked in a deep breath and, straining, forced her arms to rotate.
Click! The cuffs popped open. With difficulty, she sat up, and pulled her arms back to their normal position, biting her lip hard to stifle a screech of pain as her shoulders crunched in their sockets. “Fuck,” she hissed. Her left arm hung limply at her side, definitely dangling at the wrong angle. Well, at least she was out.
A quick search of the office yielded a disappointing lack of weaponry, or anything else of note, so, for lack of anything better, she picked up a heavy paperweight (why? No one had used paper in three centuries) from the desk and strode towards the door. Which slid open before she touched it.
On instinct, Zara shrieked and, like a good soldier, hurled the paperweight at the woman in the maroon NASA uniform on the other side, who ducked with a yelp of surprise. As she straightened up, Zara saw her face, and her heart leapt into her throat.
“What the hell was that?” asked Joanne Saylor of the NASA submarine Jeremiah, Zara’s maybe-ex-girlfriend.
Zara swallowed. “Uh,” she said, scrambling for a solution. Somehow, in combat training, they’d never covered protocol for what to do if your ex who you haven’t seen since she smuggled you off your sub following your fully justified mutiny shows up to find you arrested in the city police chief’s office. They also hadn’t covered what to do if the ex in question had cut her hair really short and it looked very nice. “That’s for, uh, not calling.”
Joanne gave her a wide-eyed incredulous look. “I couldn’t call!” she hissed. “You were on the run for hitting Captain Jefferson in the face with a socket wrench and commandeering the sub!” Her eyes swept over the insignia just barely visible on the inside of her jacket—three concentric circles. “So, it’s true, you’ve joined RAD Brigade.”
“Well, don’t shout about it.”
“And now you’ve been arrested!”
“To be fair, I was halfway through breaking out when you arrived. Lovely to see you again, by the way.”
“You—“ Joanne broke off as they both heard voices coming down the hall. “In here, quick,” she said, pushing Zara backwards into the office.
“Hey,” Zara objected, as she found herself right back where she started.
Joanne closed the door, and turned to face her, shaking her head. “You haven’t changed at all, have you? Still hurling yourself headfirst into the first insane situation you can find.”
“I did not hurl myself, thank you very much. I was carrying out a very important mission to bring food to the poorer settlements that the Coalition so loves to ignore. This is just an unfortunate detour. I’d be out of here already if you hadn’t shown up.”
“No, you wouldn’t. There’s a whole regiment out there, hoping some of your friends will appear to try and break you out. Apparently, you’ve made quite a reputation for yourself.”
“You shouldn’t be.” Joanne shook her head, frustrated. “You never think things through, do you? It’s always just charge ahead, figure it out when you get there, and now you’re stuck—“
“I’ll have you know,” said Zara, getting angry, “that before you got here, I was handcuffed to that desk. And yet here I stand. So, progress. I’m not stuck, I’m just…waiting for the opportune moment.”
“In other words, you don’t have a plan.”
“I strongly object to your tone. And I don’t need your help to get out of here.”
“If it weren’t for me, you’d be in prison now,” Joanne snapped, “so would you please listen to me for three seconds?”
Zara considered this. “No,” she said, after due consideration. “I think I’m fine on my own.” She strode towards the door.
Joanne grabbed her left arm.
“Aagh!” Zara doubled over, cradling the limp appendage close to her chest. “Fucking Christ, Saylor, didn’t they teach you not to grab people’s dislocated limbs during basic medical training?”
Joanne leaned in, concerned. “What did you do?”
Zara glared up at her. “Got into a fencing match with electrified police batons, and just as he was about to get the better of m—no, I yanked it out of its socket breaking out of the handcuffs, what do you think happened?”
Joanne rolled her eyes. “Don’t know why you’re complaining, you used to dislocate something every few weeks. It drove Dr. Jacobs crazy. Honestly, you’re still in much better shape than I expected.”
“It still hurts—wait, expected?” Her brain scrambled to scroll back their conversation. “Regiment waiting for other members? Did you know I was in here?”
“Yes, idiot, haven’t you been listening? Your friends with the Brigade contacted me when you got taken in. I’m here to bail you out. Again.”
“Oh. Well. Neat. What’re we waiting for?”
“Shift change,” said Joanne, looking like she wanted to strangle her. It was a look she had received often over the course of their relationship. Ah, memories. “I’ve disabled the cameras in this room, which is why you haven’t already been caught. We get you in a spare uniform and sneak you out.”
“Hm. I’ll admit that’s a slightly better idea than I would have thought of.”
After a wildly awkward twenty minutes of silence, they crept out of the office. The hallways were busy, with enforcement officers going every which way. The uniform did its job, and no one noticed them. Joanne hustled her down the hallway, keeping their heads down, and out onto the street, where they hopped on a crowded tram towards the seaport at the edge of the city. Zara kept her eyes on the window, watching the streets of Adriatica pass by.
“Listen,” Joanne said eventually, so quietly that Zara had to lean in to hear her over the conversations of the other passengers, “we’ve been building a case for you. A lot of people have heard the story of what happened, that day, and you’ve got a lot of public support. If you wanted…we might be able to get you your position back.”
Zara averted her eyes. Joanne was watching her very closely. “Look,” she said finally, “I used to think…well, a few years ago I would’ve given anything to go back. I loved my job there. But I’m done taking orders. Until NASA gets some better people calling the shots, I’m better off out here.”
“That’s what I figured you’d say.” Joanne gave her half a smile. “I made first mate, by the way.”
“Really? That’s amazing. Still under Jefferson?”
“Well. At least the Jeremiah has someone who knows what they’re doing.” Tentatively, Zara touched her hand. “If more of NASA’s captains and directors were like you, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back.”
“Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
They reached their destination a few minutes later. The seaport was comprised of a few hundred airlocks set into the wall of the dome, allowing submarines and pods and other seacrafts could attach themselves to the outside of the semi-transparent city walls. On the inside was a complicated multi-story walkway, connecting the airlocks and controlling the flow of traffic. A handful of enforcement officers were standing by the entrances to the walkways, checking IDs, but with Zara in one of their jackets and Joanne in NASA uniform, no one gave them a second glance. Joanne led them past the bigger commercial transport subs and the NASA crafts parked in the busiest part of the port, to the smaller section for privately owned crafts.
A few levels up on the walkway, Frank was leaning casually against the wall beside one of the airlocks. He raised his eyebrows as he recognized Joanne. “Well. Here we are again.” He frowned at Zara’s arm, which she’d tried to hide in the too-big sleeve of the stolen uniform jacket. “What happened to you?”
“Got into a wild fight. No big deal.”
“I’m sure. Can’t wait to hear about it. I’ll give you two a moment, shall I?” He disappeared into the airlock passage.
The two of them stood awkwardly, avoiding looking each other. “I should probably go,” Joanne said finally. “Captain Jefferson will be wondering where I went.”
“Right.” Zara shifted, uncomfortable. “Listen…thank you. For saving my ass. Both times.”
“Of course.” Another awkward silence. “I probably shouldn’t ask where you’re going.”
“I wouldn’t tell you if you did.”
Joanne nodded. “Okay. Well. I’ll let you go, then.” She held out her hand. Zara shook it. She turned to go.
“Are we broken up? Like, officially?”
Joanne gave her another incredulous look. “It’s been three years, Zara! What part of ‘we’ll probably never see each other again’ doesn’t sound like a breakup to you?”
“Got it. Cool, cool, just checking.” Zara watched her start to head out before calling her back again. “We’re good, though, right? You and me?”
Joanne turned back to look at her. Zara looked back. Joanne stood tall, professional, serious. She had ambitions and life plans, which no longer involved her. Zara found that the thought didn’t hurt like it used to.
“I loved you, I really did,” Joanne said, softly. “I’ll always care about you, to some extent. But we never would have worked, long term. You know that.”
Zara shrugged. “Yeah. Probably would’ve ended up mutinying against you, eventually. You’ll be a great captain, by the way.”
Joanne smiled, and nodded. “Take care, Zara. I hope next time I see you, it’s under better circumstances.”
“Yeah. Me too.”
Jon was looking over navigational charts when she knocked on his door, twenty minutes later. “Hey,” she said. “I lived.”
“Thank god.” He jumped up out of his chair and hugged her tightly. He gives great hugs, too. Definitely a factor to consider.
“So what happened?” He gestured to the empty chair and settled on the desk, looking at her critically. “What’d you do to your arm? Crack open a bunch of heads? Zip-line across the city, mowing down police officers right and left?”
Zara laughed, playing with the sling on her left arm. “Well, I was going to tell you the whole exciting story about how I fought off four guards at once, barely escaping with my life, but I actually got cuffed to a desk and dislocated it from moving my arm wrong trying to unlock them.”
“Ouch,” he said, grinning.
“Didn’t even get to bust one head. Don’t tell anyone.”
“It’ll be our secret.”
Zara smiled up at him, really looking at him for what felt like the first time. He was a handsome guy, her best friend. And his shoulders really were quite nice.
Fuck it, said something in her brain. What’ve you got to lose?
“So listen,” she began, “we should talk.”
He raised an eyebrow. “About what I said to you before you left that made you run for your life?”
“You’re not making this easy.”
“Oh, I know.”
Zara shook her head, took the plunge. “I think we should do it. You and me. Dating. Romance.”
Jon snorted. “This is by far the most awkward way anyone’s ever tried to ask me out.”
“I always strive to reach new heights.” Why was she so nervous, all of a sudden? “You didn’t give me an answer.”
Jon smiled at her. “Okay, then. Let’s do it.”
Zara nodded, relieved. “Neat.” She held up a hand for a high five.
He gave her a look. “Has anyone ever told you how bad you are at this?”
“It has come up, yes.”
Jon managed to hold a straight face for a few more seconds. “Well, I forgive you. Come on. Let’s go tell the others about how thrilling your escape actually was.”
About the Author
Sophie Walker · Goucher College
Sophie Walker is a lover of science fiction and improv comedy. She also enjoys other creative work, like sewing clothes and making jewelry. She lives in NYC and is looking for a writing or editing job.
About the Artist
Arjun Saatia · University of Central Arkansas
Arjun Saatia is an Indian-American graphic designer and illustrator based in central Arkansas. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art with an emphasis in graphic design from the University of Central Arkansas. This piece first appeared in Vortex.