At the end of the hall, I run into my first alien soldier.
I hear it before I see it, which is a good thing because otherwise, the sight of it might have surprised me into doing something stupid. It’s huge. Bigger than the lion thingies, which are about the same height as a human. This beast is eight feet tall. Its skin is pitch black – which is why I didn’t see it right away in the shadows – and slick looking like it’s not really skin but some sort of carapace. Like the lizard alien behind me, it has four arms, both sets holding their own gun of some sort. At least, I think they’re guns. They’re made of some unknown metal and have long barrels with a hole on one end and a handgrip on the other, but who knows, maybe they’re flutes instead.
I eye the creature as we near it. No way they’re flutes. Everything about this alien screams that it was made for slaughter. Its frame is stacked with muscle. Its lower jaw, distended slightly beneath its upper one to make room for its tusks, looks strong enough to break my fist on. Red eyes stare down at me from a face straight out of a nightmare. It’s like some horrible cross between a bat and a warthog.
As I pull even with it, it shifts, and it’s then I realize that the large shape splashed across the wall behind it isn’t its shadow like I first thought, but a pair of wings tucked in close. I shift my gaze back to its face just in time to see it lean forward, nose twitching as it drags in a rapid series of breaths, like I’m its prey or something, and it’s scenting me.
Two can play at that game, fucker.
I lean forward, not breaking stride, and smell it right back, thinking I’m a big bad bitch for all of two seconds before its scent registers and I double over gagging. Oh, yup, it’s a predator, all right. It smells like a charnel house up close. Like blood and guts and sepsis.
I let out one last almighty sneeze-gag and pick up my pace to get away from the thing before I puke. The soft pattering of feet coming from right on my heels tells me the lizard escorting me is doing the same. I don’t know what fear smells like on those little dudes, but its scent has a bit of a prickly bite to it that makes me think it doesn’t like the soldier either.
The little alien eventually pulls even with me and begins to lead me through the ship with a series of hand waves and tugs on my arm.
“I know where the med bay is,” I grumble.
The tugs on my arm stop.
I glance down at it, unable to help myself. “Can you understand me?”
I’ll be damned. “But you don’t speak English?”
It nods again.
I frown. “You do speak English?”
Another nod. It points to its throat.
Ah, I think I understand. “Your vocal cords can’t form the right sounds?”
A nod and even what might pass for a smile this time.
I’m having a one-sided conversation with a small, polite alien. What the actual fuck has my life become?
We enter the med bay a few minutes later, and I’m shocked to see that it’s crowded with humans. Most of them are unconscious, being wheeled about by the lion folk, but a few, like me, are on their feet being led by lizards. All of them look freaked out. I scan the crowd, searching for my fellow shock troops. I don’t see a single one, and that bothers me. Together, we could come up with a plan, find some way to storm the comms room and get a signal out to the fleet or even send someone off in an escape pod. But more than anything, I want to see my lieutenant, the only woman who might be able to override the bullshit order the captain gave me. I’ve been serving beneath her for four years. Her hold over me is far greater than some trumped-up ship commander I’ve only served with for a few months. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself to keep from feeling trapped and helpless.
A tug comes from my arm, and I look down to see the lizard alien gesturing to one of the exam rooms. It’s a clear command to go to it, and I sigh, my feet turning before I can even think of trying to resist.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find inside the room, but it certainly wasn’t a short, curvy human woman with neon blue hair wearing a lab coat. I haven’t seen her on board the ship before; she must be one of the humans working for the aliens.
“Oh! We have a live one!” she says, smiling as she stands.
I pause a few steps inside the door.
“Please take a seat,” she tells me. Her gaze drops, and she grins at my alien escort. “Thanks, Roger.”
The alien gives her a smile and a wave and then turns and closes the door behind him.
I arch a brow at the woman in the lab coat. “Roger?”
She laughs. “Last time I tried to pronounce his real name, I mangled it so bad he didn’t speak to me for two days, so I’ve just started calling him Roger.” She shrugs. “He doesn’t seem to mind much.”
I stare at her, trying to think of how to phrase my next question without sounding… specist? “How can you tell them apart?” The more information I have about these creatures, the better.
She pulls the chair out for me and gestures to it in what might be an offer of sitting but which my body takes as an order to sit, so of course I sit.
Do not resist. Fucking captain.
“They have distinct patterns in their scales,” she tells me. “I’m Anna, by the way. I’ll be administering all of your inoculations and taking your samples.”
“Inoculations?” I ask, watching as she flips open some sort of plastic-looking box and starts pulling things out of it. I try to identify those things, but it’s clear they aren’t human-made, and all my brain can come up with is that they look vaguely medical and very alien.
“Oh, sorry. Yes, inoculations.” She pauses in her work and turns to face me. “Everyone else I’ve seen today has been unconscious.”
“They gassed the SIP rooms.”
The excitement in her eyes at having her first live patient dims a little. “Yeah. Unfortunately, there was a bit of resistance right after we boarded, and they decided to play it safe by knocking everyone else out afterward.”
“Resistance?” It must have been belowdeck, because I didn’t hear it.
She lowers her voice as if sharing some prime piece of gossip. “There were a few shock troops on board.”
I don’t like the way she said were. “What happened to them?”
Her expression falls. “They didn’t survive the fight.”
My spine hits the back of my chair hard enough to force my breath out of me in a whoosh. Fuck. Lieutenant Franco. Jane. Stephanie. Michelle. Indra. All the others. All dead.
My meds dull my reaction into something some would see as inhuman. Anyone else might be crying or screaming by now. After all, I’ve served with the women in my unit since I was old enough to walk. We grew up together, more like competitors than sisters, but all the same, they were as close to family as someone like me could ever hope for, and now they’re all gone.
My chest… hurts. A little. But not enough to keep my mind from moving on, which I’m grateful for. With the lieutenant dead, there’s no one but the captain to free me now. Either I find him and force him to let me out of this order, or I start looking for loopholes. At least I can defend myself if I have to. At least I won’t be turned into some alien sex slave.
“You’re…” the scientist starts.
I look up and see her staring at the patch on my armor.
She glances to the door and lowers her voice. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? A shock troop?”
Her gaze darts from me to the door again, and she steps in close. “You don’t plan on fighting them, do you?”
I almost laugh. I can’t fight. Not unless someone hurts me first. “No.”
Relief flashes across her face. “Oh, that’s good. You’ll be all set then.”
“How so?” Something about the way she phrased that makes it sound like she thinks it’ll be smooth sailing for me from this point out.
She goes back to pulling things out of her alien box. “Because you’ll fetch a super high price at the job fair and be treated really well.”
I frown at her. Job fair? Is she for real?
“I need you to take the top part of your suit off,” she says.
I stand and start unlatching the hidden seams along my right side. “So, about this job fair?”
“Oh, right.” She’d been staring at my progress like she was fascinated by how the suit fit together. Scientists. They’re all the same. “Once we’re done here, you’ll be taken over to the big ship, given a room, and pretty much kept there until further assessment. We’ll fly back to Tau Ceti E once all the new passengers are on board, and that’s where you’ll go to the fair.”
I flick the last latch and tug open my armor. It’s interesting how she describes everything. New passengers, she said. Not captives, which is what we really are. There we were, on our way to Io, minding our own damn business when her ship attacked and then boarded ours. Now aliens plan to take all of us off the Kennedy.
Why the hell is she talking about it like we’re going willingly? Like we’re all just buddies who met up in space and decided to hang out together? My fellow soldiers died trying to keep the aliens out, for fuck’s sake.
I take a deep breath and pull open the front panel of my armor. Focus. I need as much detail as I can get. I don’t have time to try and figure out what’s up with this chick. Who knows, maybe we’re under surveillance, and she’s talking like this because she’ll be punished if she doesn’t paint a pretty picture for me.
“Tau Ceti E?” I ask.
She nods and comes over to help me pull the top of the suit off. “It’s an earth-like planet about four and a half sizes larger than home.”
I shrug out of the armor and set it down beside my chair. “Is the atmosphere livable for us?”
“It’s livable,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s comfortable, though. Their gravity is a little
lighter and the oxygen richer, so you might feel slightly stoned until you adjust. Er, if you adjust. You might get a job on another ship or planet instead.”
“Okay, back up a second,” I say, retaking my seat. “Explain this job fair.”
She sits across from me and lifts a semi-clear strip of filmy material from a small, cylindrical tube. “Tau Ceti E is sort of a central hub. There’s a wormhole near it that leads to the center of a much more populated universe. It’s basically a trade planet. Aliens come from all over space to purchase goods or restock their ships or find new work.”
With my armor off, the air is cool against the skin of my arms. The shirt I wear is sleeveless. And dirty. I’ve been in it for days thanks to our confinement in the SIP, and the smell of myself is enough to turn my stomach, but Anna doesn’t seem to notice as she scoots a chair close to mine and takes a seat.
“After your assessment, you’ll be given new clothes,” she says, glancing over the muscle of my bare arms. “Probably skimpy ones to show off your strength. Then you’ll be brought to an arena-like enclosure. They’ll announce the results of your assessment, basically your skill sets, and then the aliens at the fair will bid on you.”
I frown. “That sounds a lot like a slave auction.”
“No, it’s different.” She leans closer and holds up one of those thin, filmy, plastic-looking strips. “This is your first set of inoculations. I’m going to put it on you like a band-aid, and it will dissolve into your skin.”
I don’t protest. I’m sure there are all sorts of nasty space viruses that I have no immunity to, and if I’m about to go to a highly transitory trade planet, I want all the resistance I can get.
I offer up my arm, and she pauses with the strip an inch away from my skin.
Her eyes, a rich brown, meet mine. A little line appears between her brows as she frowns. “You’re very calm about all this.”
I have no choice, I almost say, thinking of the captain’s order, but that’s not entirely fair. I might have to go along with all of this, but the captain didn’t tell me I had to be nice about it. The thing is, I’m an even-keeled person. I think even without the meds, I’d be pretty laid back. Just because they dull our emotions, they don’t entirely strip our personalities. Amongst my unit, there were hotheads and rude people just like in any other group of humans. Sure, it might have been a restrained version of a hothead, but the point stands. This scientist is only doing her job, and while alien technology might skeeve me out, I’ll gladly use it if it keeps me alive through this shitshow.
I shrug. “No point in being an asshole about things.”
Anna’s expression turns contemplative as she lays the alien band-aid on my skin. “It’s too bad your fellow troops didn’t feel the same.”
I don’t know what I was expecting to feel from the band-aid, but it definitely wasn’t this stab of ice-cold pain. It’s like she pulled the inoculation straight out of a sub-zero freezer instead of a metal box. As I watch, the little plastic strip starts to melt, and the chill of it rushes into my muscle and then spreads outward. Creepy.
I glance up at Anna. “They weren’t being assholes by defending the ship. Their directive was to protect the Kennedy.”
“But they still could have stood down when they realized they were up against a superior force.”
I shake my head. “There was no way to know they would lose until they actually did.”
She purses her lips and swivels away from me to pull another inoculation out of her box of alien goodies. “It was fifty to nine.”
“We’re used to prevailing against those odds,” I tell her.
She falls quiet as she applies the next band-aid to my arm. I’m ready for the iciness this time, so I’m not distracted as I watch it melt into my skin. Once it’s absorbed, I lift my arm and examine it in the light, expecting it to be wet. It’s completely dry. Super creepy.
I drop my arm and watch Anna gather still more inoculations. “How is the job fair different from a slave auction?”
She lays another band-aid on my arm. “Because you’ll be paid for your work and treated well.”
“But I’ll still be a captive.”
She nods. “Yes, there is that. I said it wasn’t a slave auction. I didn’t say it wasn’t problematic.”
“You called it a job fair.”
The corners of her lips twitch like she wants to frown. “That’s what we,” she glances up at me after applying another band-aid, “the humans I work with, have taken to calling it. It’s… easier to think of it that way.”
I don’t say anything to that. Who am I to judge her? She’s here against her will just like I am, trying to make the best of a shitty situation.
I watch as she swivels away again, expecting her to pull more alien strips out, but it seems like my inoculations are over because she lifts something from the metal tabletop instead. The thing in her hands looks like a thin block of clear, hardened plastic, but it must be some sort of advanced tech because it comes to life with a flick of her fingers, numbers and letters flashing over it.
I decide to switch up my line of questioning. “What happens to people who try to escape?”
“They’re either killed or sent to a prison planet.” Her expression is grim as she meets my eyes. “Trust me, death is the better option.”
“Good to know.”
Okay, so that settles that then. She can paint whatever pretty picture she wants for her coping mechanism, but the reality is that we’re all alien captives, little better than slaves.
She presses her finger to the tablet, and a small sliver of something metallic swivels out from what looks like a solid piece of plastic. Freaky alien tech is freaky. “You might feel a slight pinch,” she says, angling that pointy part toward my arm.
I nod and hold still, used to being poked and prodded. The scientists who raised me drew vials of blood from me every other week, checking my vitals, my hormone levels. I faced a battery of tests once a month to gauge everything from my intelligence to my run speed. A little prick of an alien needle isn’t anything to worry about.
Or so I think right up until my vision starts to go dark.
“Whass happenin?” I manage.
“I’m sorry,” Anna says.
The world goes black, and I’m falling, falling.
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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.
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