I hate tranquilizers. The lights in my room, dim though they are, hurt my eyes. My body feels sluggish, slow to follow my brain’s commands. I keep licking my lips for some stupid reason. Probably because I have cotton mouth due to the drugs, or maybe I’m still a little high. I’m also cold, so I drag my carcass off my sleeping mat and over to the shower console, praying it will work.
I let out a sigh of relief after swiping my hand across the hidden control, when the panel in the ceiling slides open and the showerhead appears. My performance in that white room of doom must have earned me another reward.
Fingers shaking with spent adrenaline and the comedown from the drugs they shot me full of afterward, I strip my ruined clothes off. There are burns in the fabric, but surprisingly, they didn’t singe through to my skin. Huh. I give my shirt a preliminary tug near the neckline, testing its tensile strength. It doesn’t split, but I can feel it flexing, just slightly, in my grip. So this stuff is lighter than linen but somehow denser than leather. Maybe I’ve been too quick to judge alien tech if it’s all this useful.
I set the clothes on the floor and turn on the shower. My skin is a kaleidoscope of purples and blues, shot through with sickly yellow that indicates some of my bruises are already healing. I must have been out for several hours. The last thing I remember is a panel in the test chamber wall sliding open and a small, cylindrical tube peeking out from it. They must have used a dart gun on me like I was some sort of rabid street dog. Seems like an overreaction; I wasn’t that far gone. Sure, I might have been laughing while ripping those drones apart, but after being cooped up so long, who could blame me for letting my hair down and having some fun?
I step beneath the showerhead, goosebumps pebbling my skin as the cascade of warm water rushes over me. The sigh I let out echoes through the room. I’d like to blame the full-body satiation I feel on the drugs, but I know better. I finally had a chance to fight, to vent weeks’ worth of pent-up battle lust onto the unfeeling bodies of those machines. My thirst for violence has been slackened – that’s why I’m so relaxed.
I tilt my head back, letting water flow over my scalp and then down my body, chronicling my soreness with every slight shift I make. One of the perks of bioengineering that I’ll never complain about is my advanced regenerative abilities. This time tomorrow, most of my contusions will be gone, the stiffness melting from my limbs. I’ll need to eat like a horse to fuel my recovery, something the aliens probably aren’t aware of. Maybe if I ask nicely, they’ll double my portions until I’m back to full strength.
A smile tugs at my lips. I feel sated and more than a little smug. I found another loophole, or maybe it’s more like a caveat to my current mission. Since I don’t see robots as sentient creatures, I feel no need to follow their orders. As soon as I realized they posed a threat to me, I was ready, and I experienced none of that weird compulsion to obey them. Then they started shooting at me. Maybe I should have been afraid – I’m sure most humans would have been – but I was so happy, so relieved, that I’d come closer to crying tears of joy than I can ever remember.
I’m so relaxed and, okay, definitely still a little high that I nearly jump when a panel in the wall slides open near my elbow, presenting me with another gray slab of soap. I scoop it up and scrub it over my scalp, using it as shampoo. Training kicks in while I wash up, and I start to go over the fight in my head, replaying events several times as I look for ways I could have done better. It’s easy to be partial now, after the bloodlust has cleared from my system. There’s no doubt that I could have been quicker, could have disabled the robots faster. Instead I took my sweet time, glorying in the thrill of battle.
My lieutenant would have been disappointed in me, and that realization hits like a kick to the gut. She was constantly pushing me to do better, to be a smarter fighter. To stop reveling in carnage and death and move with the full efficiency my body is capable of. Showboating, she called it – my propensity to do things like scissor-kick a soccer ball-sized robot across a room when a simple heel stomp would have been more effective, not to mention time friendly.
I’ll try to do better, I tell my memories of her.
As I rinse off, my thoughts turn to the other women of my unit. How Jane would have egged me on in that fight. The way Indra’s dark eyes would have followed me around the room, missing nothing. Michelle would have stepped into the space right afterward and demand her turn, if only to outdo me. She was always my biggest competition.
And now they’re all gone. It makes me feel… alone. I’ve been trying to keep my thoughts busy up until this point, focusing on survival, ways to evade the order I’ve been given, worry over my brainiacs. But now, fresh off a fight, it’s hard not to think about the women I served with, remember the girls they had been, the stupid, petty squabbles that plagued our childhoods and followed us into adulthood, all the days and nights I’ve spent with them.
Fuck, this sucks. And it hurts.
I rub a palm over my chest, trying to soothe the discomfort away, trying to tell myself that the pain radiating from my breastbone is heartburn, not heartache. I’m not supposed to feel grief. Then again, I’m not supposed to nearly cry with joy either.
I stop scrubbing at my chest. I know what this is; I haven’t been taking my meds at the right intervals. That’s the only thing that could explain this instability.
I finish rinsing off quickly, hoping the aliens will grant me one more request, that they’ll let me have some sort of clock or countdown or something, so I know when to pop my next pill. Maybe I can convince them it’s in their best interest. That I have no idea what will happen if I get too far off my medication regiment, and an unstable shock troop is a dangerous shock troop. If the aliens don’t believe me, they can ask literally any other human on board, and they’ll tell them the same thing.
There’s a neat pile of clothes near the door – someone must have left them for me while I slept off the tranquilizers – and I rub myself down with a towel and then tug them on. As soon as I’m dressed, my cuffs jerk at my arms in warning. They must have been waiting for me to finish my shower. I amble over to my sleeping mat and sit, a little slower than usual. I’m grateful my captors aren’t the impatient sort. My whole body hurts. I don’t even want to think about how painful it would be to get wrenched down by my wrists right now.
The door opens with its usual weirdness, and I blink at the sight that greets me. A lizard stands right outside my cell. Behind it, crowded together in the hallway, are three of the big warriors. Each of them holds two guns apiece in their arms, and their eyes are lasered in on me. Maybe I did a little too well during my test. The lizard steps forward, carrying a food tray. I drag a deep breath through my nose, catching the bitter edge of its scent. Goddamn it, it’s afraid of me.
“Thank you for the food,” I say, trying to look and sound as nonthreatening as possible. “If its not an inconvenience, I could use double portions for the next few days as I heal.”
The alien stops an inch inside my door and lowers the tray so fast that gray gruel slops over the side of the bowl when it hits the floor. The lizard never takes its eyes off me, like it’s worried I might lunge the second it glances away. Relieved of its burden, it rushes back to the safety of the warriors. My door materializes right after.
I sigh. The alien gave no indication that it heard me. Hopefully it did, and was just too nervous to nod. I don’t want to add starvation on top of soreness, and I really will starve if I don’t eat enough. Even now, my stomach is like a bottomless pit in my abdomen, hunger gnawing at me. I tip the bowl back and swallow down the barely palatable contents in record time. When I’m done, I set it back on the tray near the door, fold my towel and my clothes into a small, neat pile, and place them next to it.
Me Gabi. Good captive. Play nice.
I don’t know if it’s the drugs or the grief that threatens or my earlier exertions, but I’m tired. All I want to do is lay down and go back to sleep. I’ve been taught all my life to listen to my body, follow my instincts, and right now, they’re telling me I need time to recover. Before I give in, I work through a series of stretches. The last thing I need is for my injuries to stiffen up on me while I rest.
I talk as I stretch. “I need some sort of clock with earth timing,” I say. “My medications need to be ingested at exact intervals if I’m to remain even-tempered and,” God, I hate saying this, “nice and predictable and compliant. If you want to know what happens when shock troops stop taking their pills, just ask one of your human crew members.”
Nothing happens, but I know someone heard me. This room is advanced, but it’s not fully automated. I know because of how it’s responded to my past queries. Some alien is listening, watching me at all times. I hope the others from our SIP room aren’t facing the same scrutiny. It would be unnerving to anyone not used to it. Lucky for me, I’ve been under a microscope since the day I was born. One of my earliest memories is waking up to a scientist looming over my crib.
I’m asleep almost the second I lay down, but I don’t rest easy. My dreams are plagued with memories of my dead unit. I see Indra’s sharp, pre-teen grin as she trips me during a combat match, Michelle’s dark braids streaming out behind her as I race to catch up, Lieutenant Franco’s stern face. Even as a child, it was obvious she’d be our leader. She was always reserved, watching, assessing. The scientists praised her for her near-perfect recall. Instead of trying to overwhelm her combat opponents with superior strength or skill, she used her brain, luring us into reacting to her feints, turning our weaknesses against us.
What was it all for? I wonder when I wake up. All that training, all that skill, and they died just like any other soldiers when faced with a superior force.
I drag myself upright, unsettled. I’m not used to questioning the meaning of life. Existential crises are for the rest of humanity, not me.
A flicker of movement dances in the corner of my eye, and I look up to see a small rectangular screen in the upper right-hand corner beside the door. It flashes to 24:00 as I watch. Then down to 23:59. It’s a countdown.
I scramble up and over to my suit pants, propped against the far wall. The water bubbler slides out helpfully as I pop my pill bottle open. I shove one in my mouth, noting how few are left, and swallow it with a sip of water. My stomach growls as I straighten. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of hours, but I’m starving.
“I could really use those extra portions,” I say.
A few minutes later, a new panel slides open, and on it is a tray with not one but two bowls of food. The sight is slightly depressing. On the one hand, yay, food! On the other, does this mean that no one will be delivering my meals to me anymore? As much as the disappearing door and the hulking warriors freak me out, they’ve broken up my days. Some of the little lizards were even borderline friendly. It wasn’t much, but at least those small interactions let me know I wasn’t entirely alone.
I mull this over as I eat. Solitary confinement is bad for humans. We have hundreds of years’ worth of prison survivors and psychologists and brain scans to attest to that, plus that weird hermit who still lives alone on the Outer Hebrides and throws feces at any boat that dares sail too close to his island. I’m as much a social creature as anyone else from my species. Maybe even more so. I’ve been crammed into barracks with dozens of other women my whole life. Personal space? What the hell is that? I’ve never been able to so much as sneak a fart without someone smelling it.
And now, not only is everyone from my unit dead, making me feel metaphorically alone on this ship, but I’m actually going to be alone. For however long it takes to get to this goddamn job fair.
Get your shit together, I tell myself. This is just another test. Instead of having to fight my way through a room full of robots, I have to hang out in a cell where all I have to do is say what I want, and it’s delivered to me. It could be worse. It could be so much worse. They could have decided I was a big enough threat that I required constant sedation. I could be in a much smaller cell with much less light and no access to clean water or food. I could be shitting in a bucket. I could be fucking dead. Compared to any of those options, this really is quite nice when you think about it.
I once sat through a lecture about how gratefulness can get you through a rough spell. How you can trick your brain into thinking things aren’t all that bad by a) reminding yourself how much worse they could be, and b) keeping a running list of all the things you’re currently thankful for.
I finish my food and sit back on my mat, legs crossed, hands resting on my knees. I close my eyes and think about how happy I am to still be alive, that I can drink whenever I want, eat by requesting food, workout, sleep, and sometimes even shower. So far, I haven’t been neglected or abused. Even the test chamber seemed designed to push me just to the edge of my limits, but not beyond. I’m one of the few humans who knows that aliens are real and galaxies full of life are waiting just beyond the borders of our own.
I almost smile, despite myself. The brainiacs must be having the time of their lives. No doubt they’re already working for our captors, if only to get a closer look at all their tech.
The thing I’m most thankful for over the next several days is the clock on the wall. Not only do my moods even out as I get back on the right medication regiment, but it lets me know how much time passes. I never knew how much I relied on a schedule until now. With that clock, I know when to sleep, when to eat, when to work out, and when to ask for food. It’s still delivered via that hatch. Everything is. Including fresh clothing. I haven’t seen another living creature since the day I was tested. That’s okay, though. I’m not as freaked out by it as I was right after shaking off the tranquilizers.
It’s on day eight that I feel a tug on my wrists. The cuffs haven’t gone off for over a week, so at first I don’t realize what this means. Then a sharper tug comes, more insistent, and I remember to sit down before I’m pulled down. The cuffs fully engage as soon as my ass hits the ground, gluing my wrists to the floor beside me. A minute passes, and then another, but the door stays shut. What the hell?
I tilt my head, trying to detect noises outside that might tell me what’s going on. Like usual, my highly sensitive ears catch nothing. Goddamn soundproof walls. Then I hear it. It’s the one thing that I’ve been able to detect in here this whole time: the engine. The low-level hum that’s provided me with white noise the past how many ever days has dropped in pitch, like it’s putting out less power.
Are we stopping? Landing? I didn’t feel us pass through any sort of atmosphere, and if Tau Ceti E is as earth-like as that turncoat scientist claimed it is, then it certainly should have one. Maybe we’re making a pit stop, picking up more unsuspecting earthlings to sell into –
The floor beneath me starts to vibrate, barely detectable at first, but then harder. Just hard enough that my hair sways around me. I know this kind of vibration, this pressure pushing down on me from all directions. We’re passing through atmosphere.
Don’t make assumptions, Lieutenant Franco’s voice ghosts through my mind. Okay, we might be passing through atmosphere. But then, we could be traveling through a wormhole for all I know. I’ve never traveled through one, after all; it might feel the same as landing on a planet.
I shift where I am, trying to get comfortable as the pressure increases. I hate this. I hate not knowing what’s going on outside my cell. This strange, frustrated, borderline helpless feeling is new to me. Is this what it’s like for other humans? To never hear or smell or see what’s coming well in advance? Poor bastards. I suddenly feel a little bad about my impatience in the SIP room back on the Kennedy. I should have been more understanding with people when they freaked out. Even now, my body longs to expel this, this… anxiety in some way. Since I can’t punch anything in my current situation, screaming holds real appeal.
I shake my head against the urge. I’ve been trapped in here for too long. At this point, I welcome landing on an enemy planet and being carted out into an auction house like human chattel if only because it means I’ll get to leave my room, which, yes, I realize is incredibly fucked up, but it doesn’t make my excitement go away. I might be able to see the captain if I get out of here. More interactions with other people or aliens or robots means more potential loopholes to discover. And who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky, and some benevolent alien will buy me. One who will hear my pleas to return to my home planet and warn the rest of my species. I mean, I highly fucking doubt that, but a girl’s gotta have something to look forward to.
I might be hoping for the best, but deep down, I’m still expecting the worst, which means I won’t be too crushed if I’m sold to some gladiatorial arena and spend the rest of my short life slaughtering alien life forms. My heart picks up at that thought, displaying, yet again, how deranged I must be on some level, how inhuman. Because the idea of slaughter makes me almost as excited as the idea of freedom.
The pressure on me lightens, even as the vibrations die down. We’ve either passed through atmosphere, come out of hyperdrive, or reached the other end of a wormhole. It must be safe to move around again because my grav cuffs disengage. Good thing. The clock on my wall just reset to 24:00.
I only have ten pills left.
Copyright © 2021 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.