Star Crossed - Episode 1
by Esha Gupta
Everything on planet Dard is severe and gray. No beauty exists here.
The food is stale and colorless. That is, if you get to eat.
Everything smells like gunpowder.
It's always cold.
There’s a constant sound of machines grinding. Voices scream in pain.
There’s no music.
No laughter.
Be thankful you don't live here.
It’s like a nightmare — but you can't wake up from it…
And you aren't even sure how you got there in the first place.
Sargon just made his nightly rounds.
WTH Karina — you shouldn't be on your phone right now.
If you get caught, we’re BOTH dead. Like, literally dead.
I got you that phone ILLEGALLY.
Remember? I worked a month of night shifts for the money — disassembling BODIES.
So please — don’t be an idiot.
Niko, Sargon gave me a lashing.
Holy shit, Rina — I’m sorry.
There’s blood all over my back…
And all over my "bed" — that slab of wood. There are holes in it, Niko. And worms too.
I can’t stop crying. I just…needed to hear from you.
I get it, Rina. I’m here.
You don’t, though. I needed to find comfort in your voice…
So I’d remember that I shouldn’t off myself. Sometimes I’m afraid of what I’ll do…
Sorry. I know it’s dumb of me to text you like this—
Especially since Sargon just…visited
It’s not dumb. I shouldn’t have said that before — I didn’t know what you’d been through.
Rina, I’m so sorry.
How’d it happen?
Sargon was walking by, so I pretended to sleep.
I thought it would somehow convince him to leave me alone.
But then he put his hands on me…
He trailed them up my thigh…
Oh God, I’m going to throw up.
I know. I HATE it when he touches me.
Did he…??
No. When I didn't give into him like he wanted, he got pissed.
That’s when he gave me the lashing.
What a lizard brute. I want to rip his face off.
That would be pretty awesome.
But on a serious note — you’ve got to keep fighting, Rina.
Recruitment Day is less than two days away.
That’s our only way off of this planet.
You’ve stayed alive for your family for this long. You can’t give up now.
Don’t forget — THEY are the reason you’re going to survive this hellhole.
Yeah.
I’ll come see you tomorrow morning? I have a surprise :)
Oh yeah? I’m intrigued…
After, we can go check the lottery numbers together.
I know we'll both get picked — I have a feeling.
Then we'll win the Recruitment Day challenge, whatever it is—
And we’ll become members of the Galactic Squad — together.
We’ll leave Dard FOREVER and find your family.
It’s got to happen — we’ve been working at this for too long.
Whatever you say, Niko.
Come on — hang in there.
Your positivity just baffles me sometimes.
I want to kill myself every day…
I don’t understand where you get the strength to go on.
Just gotta hope for the best, you know?
Plus, the thought of seeing your fam again is what keeps you alive — you know that.
I wish I could see you now. I want to wrap my arms around you.
I know. There’s something I should tell you…
Oh no! I think I just heard someone scream.
Sargon must be coming back.
Again??!
It never ends. Talk later.
Cya tomorrow.
<3
The next morning, Niko arrives at Karina’s cell and gives her a bottle of pepper spray.
Karina arches an eyebrow at him.
To help you defend yourself.
Are you saying I can’t?
I’m saying you might as well use every tool you can—
I don’t like hearing about those lashings.
The pair falls into stride as they walk into the town center.
They know the lottery numbers will be posted on the whipping post…
And it sends a quiet current of nervous energy through them.
They reach the post.
Oh! Niko, there’s your number.
But I’m…
Mine isn’t on it.
What? That can’t be right.
Oh god, I don’t see your number anywhere.
I can’t do this—
Here, take my ticket.
No. Sargon would kill us both if I used it. You know it’s not an option.
Come on, how will he know?
Rina, you’ve got to take it—
You know I’d do anything for you, right? Anything.
Niko, stop. Please.
Rina, no — I have to tell you something.
Don’t.
I…Rina, I love you.
Niko, I can’t.
Karina runs away.
Later that night, she summons up the courage to text Niko.
Hey. I’m sorry I ran away like that today. I guess it was hard for me…
After all that anticipation. All that dreaming…
Life sucks.
I can’t talk about what you told me today.
But I want to make sure you know one thing.
You’ve been the best part of my life for the past ten years.
During my whole experience in this hellhole.
So for that — thank you.
Rina?
Can I see you?
Please??
I just need to be alone right now.
Please?
Let’s just see each other tomorrow — at Recruitment Day.
You need to get some rest. Good luck.
Wait, Rina!
Karina!!
Karina, PLEASE??!
A few hours later.
I just dropped by your quarters. You’re not in your cell.
Where are you?!
PLEASE ANSWER ME
Niko scours the whole planet, trying to find the woman he loves.
When he does, she’s lying in a pool of blood.
He sits her up and locates the cuts — two angry slits on her upper arms —
And then peels off his shirt.
He rips the threadbare fabric into strips, creating tourniquets with the old cloth.
After he expertly ties them, Karina blinks a few times.
Rina? Can you hear me?
Karina nods.
Can you see how many fingers I’m holding up?
Karina nods again.
Say it this time.
Two.
Okay. Let’s get you home.
He carries her all the way, and then lays her on her makeshift bed.
He checks her breathing and circulation again. The cuts seem to be clotting.
The next day, when Niko wakes up, he sees a few texts from Karina.
Niko — I couldn't help it.
I had nothing left to live for…I'm so sorry.
Niko??
If you’re seeing these…thank you for saving me last night.
I thought I’d finally done it…there was this moment of total bliss…
Right before everything went completely black.
I don’t really remember it.
Niko???
A few hours later, Karina texts Niko from the crowd at the Recruitment Challenge.
Niko where are you?? I don’t see you.
Third row — with all the other recruits.
Wait, are you still mad at me?
It's just so unbelievably selfish of you.
Doing what you did.
I know. I’m sorry, Niko.
Are you really though, Karina?
You know if I get picked for the Galactic Squad, I’ll do everything I can to save you—
To make sure you can join too.
You know that right??
Yes.
Then WHY?
Why did you think you had to do that?
I just don’t get it.
The thought of being here alone was overpowering.
I…wouldn’t have anyone left.
It's already so hard to make it through each day…
And right now, I have you.
But I’ll be out there, doing it all for YOU.
I know. I said I’m sorry.
Look, can we just talk about something else?
Do you know what your challenge is going to be?
Idk. They said everyone has to wear this goggle device thing — the Occulizer.
It tells you what you're Greatest Attachment is…
And whatever it is, it appears on stage.
That’s what you have to destroy.
That's the challenge — overcoming what you are most attached to in life.
I get it. Attachment = weakness
Exactly.
But can you guess what yours is?
Of course I can.
Niko, they just called your name!
OMG, I can’t believe this is finally happening.
I hope you DESTROY your challenge — I really do.
Wait, is everything okay? It’s taking a long time to start.
Listen — I should have said this before…
But I never had the courage.
God, I wish you were reading these texts right now…
Niko, I love you too.
Wait—
Why did the Occulizer shout my name???
Oh god, Niko, no…
Karina spots two of Sargon’s cronies headed toward her.
They flank her and then drag her to the stage.
They drop her. She lands quivering at Niko’s feet.
He’s holding a large sword.
Destroy your attachment!
But Niko doesn’t move.
The whole crowd goes silent, and Karina is sure everyone can hear the sound of her beating heart.
Sargon points at Niko.
Seize him!
The cronies circle in on Niko, but he’s too fast for them—
There’s a glint of metal before Niko screams.
This is for you, Rina! Live.
Niko plunges the blade into his chest.
Karina watches the blood seep into his clothing. The spot of red blooms like a rose.
As she watches the only man she’s ever loved fall dead on the ground, she decides—
She will live.
She must.
Not just for her family and Niko—
But for herself, too.