I don’t have my meds on me, and I might not be going back to the ship.
This isn’t good.
How many hours have passed since I left my cell? Since I last took a dose? At least I know from experience that I won’t totally lose it if I don’t take my next pill on time, but how long do I have before my moods start to swing again? Before my emotions become stronger? A day and a half? Two?
I remember the grief I felt when I showered after the test chamber, the tears of joy I almost shed when I found my first loophole, and I don’t want to go back there. I need this calm right now. Being stoned for half the day has taught me just how much I like being in total control of myself. Because of the tranquilizers, I only have half a map in my mind, so even if we are led back on the ship, and there is a chance to escape, I can’t get Cora all the way out. How much more will my control deteriorate as the earth meds leave my system?
I think of all the horror stories of past generations of shock troops, and I shudder. So many soldiers lost it in battle and committed one atrocity after another. And then there were the ones who vented their rage on the civilian population. Normal humans have very little defense against us; we’re just that much stronger and faster than they are. It’s entirely possible for a rampaging shock troop to take out an entire building full of humans single-handedly, which happened at least once that I know of. The bioengineering program almost shut down several times in the past because of these violent acts. Things smoothed out when the scientists stopped producing males twenty years ago. Females, they found, were much less volatile, much less likely to go off the rails and kill everyone around them.
As I stand there in my cell, staring across the hall at Cora, I wrack my brain, trying to think of the last time one of my kind went off their meds. I can’t think of a single incident in my lifetime. Is that because female troops don’t lose our shit like the males do? Or did the leaders of the bioengineering program get better at covering up our crimes?
I’m not sure, and that makes me really, really uncomfortable, especially when I think of the wary look on the captain’s face when he gave me my new “mission”.
A flash of light pulls me from my dark thoughts. I look up, at the top of Cora’s door. It must be some sort of smart tech, because instead of glass, the top two feet look just like a TV screen now. On it is an image that I know well. It’s the training room. I glance to my left and right. Above all of the cells, including that blob’s next to Cora, is an image of the room.
Cora tilts her head back, and I know she must be looking at something similar on my side, though from in here, I see nothing but glass. My gaze is drawn back to the top of her door when I see movement. Wait. It’s not an image; it’s a video. As I watch, Cora strides into the room. A camera zooms in on her face. She’s speaking, but I can’t hear the words. Her expression becomes more ominous as the video rolls, darkening to the scowl I know well from our days of captivity in the SIP room. I’d smile if not for the fact that I’m a little afraid for her; I know what happens in that room.
She’s here. Whatever it is, she survived it, I remind myself, letting out a slow, steady breath.
Cora jerks her head down, and the motion draws my attention. She points up above her, at the top of her door, and mouths, “Me?”
She goes pale, shaking her head as she retreats to the corner of her cell. This isn’t a side of her I’ve seen before. She’s usually better at hiding her fear, but right now, she’s wearing terror on her face for all to see. What is she so afraid of? What I’m about to witness? It can’t be worse than what I did in that room.
I lift my gaze back to her screen, curiosity and trepidation worming through me. A door opens opposite Cora, and a human man walks in. He’s white, with sandy brown hair and the good looks of a midwestern farm boy. He’s also bigger than her, maybe six feet tall, and a hundred pounds heavier. They stare at each other for a moment, both of them looking shocked before elation spreads across their faces, and they rush toward each other. She leaps into his waiting arms. His big hand comes up to gently cup the back of her head.
The camera angle changes again, and I can see them talking. I’m no reader of lips, but I try my hardest to figure out what they’re saying. I catch odd words, enough to learn that they’re both confused but beyond relieved they’re alive and together. Was this why Cora was so adamant she get to her room when I grabbed her? She had a lover waiting for her there?
The man gently sets her down, hands rising to cup her cheeks. He places a soft kiss on her forehead, devotion in his eyes as he looks down at her. She stares up at him like he hung the moon. They’re obviously in love, and I don’t like this. Something terrible is about to happen. I can feel it, I know it after my own ordeal in that room, but neither of them realizes it yet.
I glance down. Cora sits in the corner of her cell, knees drawn to her chest. Her face is in her hands, and her shoulders shake with silent sobs.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. What the hell am I about to watch?
Slowly, I lift my gaze back up. Cora and the man both wear grav cuffs. As I watch, those cuffs engage, their arms dragged from each other. They’re pulled apart until twenty feet separate the two. Worry has crept into their expressions. They’ve finally caught on that this isn’t some sweet reunion the aliens planned for them. The gravity on the cuffs ratchets up until they’re forced to sit. I give my wrists a sympathetic rub, knowing their pain well.
Another door opens, and a lizard steps inside, trailed by two of the large guards. The trio stops between the pair. One of the guards sets a weapon down beside each of the humans. The lizard holds up its tablet and speaks. I don’t need to hear the video to know the tablet is translating its words. No one else’s mouth moves, but twin looks of horror and devastation spread over Cora and her lover’s faces.
The aliens leave. A heartbeat after the door shuts behind them, panels in the walls open, and gun muzzles emerge, trained onto the humans. What the hell is happening? What did that alien say?
Their grav cuffs must kick off because Cora reaches out and shoves her gun away from her. The man stays where he is, staring at her with longing. He opens his mouth and says something, I can’t catch what, and Cora shakes her head at him. The, “NO,” she fires back is so obvious she must have screamed it. He says something again and gestures toward her gun. A mulish expression comes over her face, and she crosses her arms. “No,” she says again, just as adamant as the first time. He points to her gun and then at his head, his expression angry now.
They break into argument, their mouths working too fast for me to catch any of the words. Then a plasma round streaks across the screen, landing close enough to Cora that she screams and covers her head with her arms.
The man’s face hardens. He points at Cora’s gun again, and this time when he speaks, the words roll off his lips slow and steady enough for me to decipher them. “Pick it up.”
I take a step back before I even realize I’m moving, like my subconscious is trying to distance me from the nightmare playing out on screen. I know what this is. The aliens gave them a gun each and told them only one of them was going to walk out of there. If they don’t comply, they’ll shoot them both. The man wants Cora to kill him, and she’s refusing.
As I watch, he picks up his gun. Cora stiffens, hands falling to her sides.
“I love you,” he says, and then lifts the gun and shoots himself in the head.
Blood and brain matter explode in a crimson smear across the room. Cora screams again, dropping to her knees.
I tear my eyes away from the screen and look down at her. She’s still sobbing in the corner of her cell. I’ll never think badly of her again. Back on the Kennedy, I made some manipulative comment about her being weak, hoping to goad her into getting angry instead of afraid. What an asshole I was. She’s not weak; she’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. To go through what she did and somehow keep her shit together today is the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. For fuck’s sake, she led me around like she was totally fine. Obviously, she’s not fine. She’s fucking destroyed by what happened and was barely keeping it together.
I think back to the reek of her fear when we first ran into each other. Did she see me and have a flashback to this, thinking that the aliens were showing her another familiar face only to put her through the same ordeal? No wonder she looked so pale, like she hadn’t been eating or sleeping. She hasn’t been.
Movement snags my attention. I don’t want to look up, I really don’t, but if Cora lived it I feel some weird obligation not to look away, so I lift my gaze back to the screen. Instead of racing toward the body, Cora picks up her gun instead. Her intentions are clear. Fuck these aliens. She won’t play into their sick games. Her lover is dead, so she’ll join him on the other side.
Just as she’s lifting her arm, a silver flash streaks across the screen. It’s a dart, the same kind of dart that punched into my skin three times today. By some lucky chance, Cora shifts at the same time they fire, and the tranquilizer gets caught in her sleeve instead of plunging into her arm. The only reason I notice it is because of my enhanced sight. Unless the lizards had another camera zoomed in on her, they might not realize the mistake.
Feeling the dart snag her shirt, Cora looks down. Damn, the woman is smart. She sees it, realizes what it must be and that they’re trying to drug her, and pretends to swoon. I notice she doesn’t let go of the gun, though. Her watchers either don’t see or care because they come back into the room without realizing the danger.
When they’re less than twenty feet away, Cora rears up and unloads the weapon into them, taking out the guards first and then focusing her rage on the lizard. She doesn’t stop firing until another dart flies from the wall and strikes true. By the time she slumps over again, the little lizard is nothing more than a pile of sizzling meat on the ground.
This is why she was in the prison cell. This is why she was the only other human on that floor with me. The screen flashes to black for a second, and then the video starts over. I look away from it – once was enough – and glance down the hall to see similar dramas playing out on all of the screens, humans pressed to their glass doors, staring up in horror at what they’re witnessing. Why the hell are we being forced to watch these events? Is this some sick game the aliens are playing, meant to turn us against our fellow humans by showing us at our worst?
I pound on my glass, trying to get Cora’s attention. I want to tell her it’s okay, even though I realize how futile those words are. It’s not okay. Nothing about this is okay. Even back in the SIP room, when I warned everyone how bad it might get, I hadn’t imagined this. What kind of sick fucks force two people who love each other to choose which one of them lives and which one dies?
I thought the lizards were nice. Or if not nice, then at least not as cruel as you’d expect slave-trading aliens to be. Too late, I realize my mistake. Far, far too late.
I bang on the glass again, hard enough to rattle it. “Cora!”
Red hot pain sears over my wrists before punching up my arms and blasting through my entire body. I yelp and leap away from my door. What the fuck was that? I wrench my grav cuffs up and see angry crimson lines encircling my wrists. Did they just electrocute me? Unfortunately, I’ve been zapped like this before, and I know the pain. The way it thumps through your lungs, rips through your heart. This angry, streaky red looks real familiar. I suck in a breath full of the smell of charred skin, and beneath that, a scent like burnt ozone. Yup, they definitely electrocuted me. Son of a bitch. These aren’t just grav cuffs; they’re shock cuffs.
Fucking asshole lizard aliens. I’m going to punt the next one I see into a wall, just like I did that stupid robot. I’m going to rip their tail off and beat them to death with it. I’m going to… I’m going to…
I slump against the wall. I’m going to do nothing. Because I can’t do anything. I’m borderline helpless. I have damn near zero control over what happens to me or the humans around me, and I hate that. Or I would if I understood the true meaning of hate. Really, I’m extremely annoyed by it. I was bred to be a soldier, but I’ve spent more active duty time guarding people than fighting battles. My instinct is to protect anyone weaker than me, anyone in pain or distress, and right now, Cora is triggering that instinct hard.
Above her, the video screen flashes to black and then starts up again, playing on a continuous loop. I step back to the glass and watch her, current her, not past her, waiting for her to look up, to see me so I can tell her… fuck. I don’t have any idea what to say to her. Sorry isn’t nearly enough. I’ll kill them all for you would be a lie, at least in my current state.
I want to bang on the glass again, but I’ve learned that lesson, so instead, I settle in to wait her out. Eventually, she’ll look up, and by the time she does, hopefully, I’ll have figured out what to say to her.
I learn the purpose of the videos a few minutes later, when a group of aliens slides into view in the hall. I’m pressed right up against the glass when they appear, but I step away from it as they approach, not wanting to draw attention to myself. They take their sweet time in the hallway, stopping in front of one cell and then the next to watch each video roll.
They eye me when they get to mine, like cowboys sizing up a prized bull. I’m taller and more muscular than 95% of human women, and they must know enough about our species to realize that. I eye them back. They’re even taller than I am, with mottled red skin and stubby little horns rising from their skulls. Outwardly, they’re vaguely humanoid. They stand on two legs and have two arms. But the arms sit lower than a human’s, their torso’s are wider, and so much muscle leads from their shoulders up to their wide necks that they look like they evolved carrying five-ton blocks of granite on their backs. Their faces aren’t remotely humanoid. Nor are the horns curling back off their foreheads.
Once they finish ogling me and speaking amongst themselves, they look up and watch my video. This must be it: the slave auction. For some reason, when I pictured how this might play out, I went back to my history lessons. To the dark time in America when slaves were led into large rooms and assembly halls, inspected, prodded by their captors, forced to endure one degradation after another before being bought. This isn’t like that. They don’t get to touch me, just stare at me and then watch a video. Thank fuck for small favors.
The group speaks some more and then moves onto the blob’s cell. I take one look at its screen, at what it did in the white testing chamber, and immediately jerk my gaze down, struggling not to vomit. Oh, God, the lizards gave it humans, and it –
Nope! Don’t think of it. Ever. Again.
I have a strong stomach, but that? Christ, that was too much. Maybe someone out here has invented brain bleach. I need this visual gone from my head forever.
As I breathe through the threat of gagging, more aliens stream by, each more foreign and strange to my eyes than the next. I start to ignore them, trying to think of some way to get Cora out of this. Or to keep her with me. She’s been hurt. It hurts me that she’s been hurt. I should, therefore, theoretically, be able to defend her if she’s threatened again, but I won’t be able to do that if we’re separated by galaxies.
A strangely dressed group stops in front of my cell. There are six of them, their bodies varying in height and weight. The smallest barely reaches my waist, while the tallest towers over me. They’re clad in matte black space suits that leave little to the imagination. Their heads, if they have heads, are covered by the same fabric as the suits, obscuring their features from me. A few of them have holes poked through their masks and hoods, just enough space for ears to stick up or horns to shoot through.
Dark smears of liquid mar their suits in places, like one of those green rain clouds finally opened up and drenched them on their way inside. I frown, zeroing in on one of the stains. Is that rain? It looks too viscous, almost like it could be… like it could be blood. I scan my gaze over them. No, it can’t be blood. There’s too much of it. These creatures are practically covered head to toe. They would have had to fight a small army of other aliens to be this drenched.
One of them steps forward, drawing my gaze. It places its covered hand on the glass of my cell door. I count five fingers and jerk my gaze up, eyeing it. It’s taller than me, maybe seven and a half feet, still in the realm of feasible human height. No horns rise from its head, no wings spread from its back. Its proportions are the only familiar thing I’ve seen move through this hallway.
The hand disappears from the glass and rises to a seam on its neck, where the hood it wears meets the fabric of its suit. One of its party members, this one definitely not human, puts a restraining hand on its shoulder. It shrugs the hand off and then peels its hood off. No, not its hood, his hood. I’m staring into a human face. Or at least, a mostly human face. Metal gleams along the bottom left-hand side of his jaw and along the top right-hand corner of his forehead. One of his eyes is brown, like mine, the other a vivid, electric blue, too bright to be natural. He’s a… cyborg?
The look on his face as he stares at me is intense. I can almost feel it on my skin, and it freaks me out. He’s looking at me like he wants to buy me, like he wants to possess me. I mean, on the one hand, I guess I get it. He must not run into many other humans out here. On the other hand, Sir, I don’t even know you. Tone it down before it starts to get creepy.
He lifts his hands and flicks them into a familiar pattern that has me reeling.
Hello, Corporal Booker. I’m Captain Ryker. We’re going to free you, he signs.
I look back up and meet his gaze. He’s a shock troop. He’s a male shock troop. How long has he been out here? It must be years, at the very least. I take a step away from the glass, wary. There’s no way he’s on meds, but he doesn’t look batshit crazy. Maybe a little intense, but not like he’s in danger of going berserk. That strange gaze roams over me, just as possessive as a moment before, but this time, I’m not creeped out by it. An unwelcome little shudder of awareness runs through me in response, and something low in my abdomen clenches in a way I’ve never felt before. I’m half-convinced it might be the start of cramps, but I’m two weeks away from my next period, and it didn’t hurt. It felt… good.
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.