I lose track of time in my cell. With no watch, no windows, and no predictable feeding schedule, I only have my circadian rhythm to go by. Space fucks with that enough as it is, so now I have no idea if I’ve been in here for three days or six. I sleep when I’m tired, rise when I wake, and work out until I’m fed. The alien monitoring systems must be pretty advanced because “food” arrives steadily and my portion size has increased enough that despite my exertions, I’m never hungry.
I’m down to my athletic leggings and tank top now. My suit pants and boots inhibit my movement too much to work out in, let alone comfortably sleep in. The good thing is that my meds were still in a pocket of my pants, and when I held one up that first day after I was fed and announced that I needed to take my pills to keep from losing my shit, no one appeared to stop me. Instead, an invisible panel in the wall slid out and what looked like a high-tech water bubbler sparked to life. I found out shortly after where the toilet panel was by announcing I had to piss.
So far, captivity is more boring than stressful, but I don’t let myself get complacent. I can’t when I never know when my handcuffs are going to engage. At least my captors stopped immediately turning the magnets up to a million. Now I feel a slight tug before they’re going to turn them on and am given enough time to sit before they activate.
I feel that tug now, halfway through a set of pushups, so I park my butt on the ground, lay my wrists on the floor at my sides, and wait. The door dissolves. I’ve watched it every time someone comes to my room, trying to figure out how it works. All I’ve managed to determine is that it’s so far advanced past human technology that it might as well be magic. I can’t detect any sort of opening or closing mechanism. I don’t hear any sound that might warn me it’s about to disappear into thin air. It’s just there one second and gone the next.
A small lizard steps into my room, carrying a bundle of cloth. Behind it, looming in the hallway is a single guard. They went down from two to one sometime in the past however many days, when it was apparent that I wasn’t going to give them trouble. I ignore the thing because looking at it still freaks me out more than I’d like to admit. I’ve grown used to being the biggest, badest bitch on the battlefield, and that hulking behemoth makes me feel small in comparison.
The lizard sets its bundle just inside the door and then walks toward the corner farthest from my sleeping mat. It makes sure I’m watching before placing its clawed hand on part of the wall and swiping downward as if dusting it off. A panel just above it in the ceiling slides open, revealing what looks like a showerhead. Hallelujah. I stink to high heaven, and no matter how many times I said I needed to get clean, nothing happened. Maybe they were withholding this from me, saving it as a reward for my continued good behavior. No way to tell since it’s not like the lizard can answer me if I ask it.
I’ve been watching them when they visit, noting the markings on their bellies to discern one from another. So far, three different lizard aliens have come to my room. None of them are Roger. I know because I asked each one, and they shook their little heads no. That’s about as much communication as they’ve offered, ignoring all my other questions as they delivered or gathered my food trays.
I’ve wondered at that. Everything else in my room is highly automated; surely my food could be delivered via some secret hatch. I think it must be another test to see how I act, to see if I try to attack or manipulate them, so I’ve stayed on my best behavior. Am I annoyed? Bored out of my goddamn mind? Impatient to get out of this claustrophobic cell? You betcha. But bad behavior will do me no good. Captives in good standing typically get better treatment than misbehaving ones, and if I’m about to be a slave, I’d like to prove myself a good little one. Right up until the moment I figure out how to break free from the captain’s order, slit the throat of whoever buys me at this goddamn auction, and steal a spaceship so I can get back to the fleet and warn earth about what’s waiting out here for humanity.
“Clothes?” I ask, nodding toward the pile of cloth.
The little alien nods.
“How do I turn the shower on?”
It mimes stepping beneath the showerhead and pressing that same innocuous part of the wall that revealed where it was.
The lizard cracks a disturbing-looking smile at me, probably meant to be nice, but with those teeth – sheesh. It nods one final time and leaves. I don’t bother watching the door reappear. I’m not going to figure it out, and it’s only going to make my stomach flip. Plus, I’d rather not have to look at the warthog-bat soldier again.
The wrist cuffs turn off a beat after the door pops back into existence. I stand and immediately strip. God, I reek. My clothes are stiff and salt-stained from old sweat. I chuck them into the far corner and step beneath the showerhead. It comes to life the second I tap the invisible panel in the wall, water rushing down over me in a liquid sheet of warmth. I nearly groan. After so many days stuck in the same clothing, this feels like a luxury. And I’m sure it’s meant to.
Good little captive. Behave, and you can be clean. Act up, and you get to sit in your own stink.
Even knowing what this shower represents, I don’t take it for granted. I stand beneath the stream of water for as long as possible, letting it soak through my shoulder-length hair and warm my sore muscles. I tip my head forward to let it glide over the back of my neck, and that’s when I notice my room must be slightly canted in this direction. The water falls around my feet and slides toward the corner, disappearing into the small crack between the walls and floor.
“Soap?” I ask.
A small shelf pops out of the wall near my elbow. On it is a small bar the same gray as everything else in the room. I pick it up, frowning. It feels like plastic in my hand, but when I pull it beneath the water, bubbles erupt over its surface. Unlike earth soap, it doesn’t get slippery.
I decide to ignore this weirdness like I have everything else. Freaky alien tech isn’t enough to keep me from enjoying every second of getting clean. I start with my hair and work the bar over every inch of my body. When I’m done, I stand beneath the warm water until my fingers start to prune. Just because they granted me this award once, it doesn’t mean I’ll get it again, and I plan to take full advantage of this small luxury while I can.
Once I decide I’ve finally had enough, I hit the panel again to stop the water and then move toward the pile of cloth by the door. The top item is a wide piece of gray… something. It’s the size of a throw blanket but thinner than linen. Am I meant to use it as a towel? I eye it, frowning. This thing will take forever to dry me off.
I heave a sigh and dab my face. The fabric immediately soaks up all the water on my skin. Um… okay then. I lower the towel and pat my arms, watching the cloth wick up moisture like a sponge. Only it doesn’t inflate like a sponge would. Jesus Christ, this shit is weird.
I towel off as quickly as possible and drop the fabric to the floor. The two other items the alien left are a pair of long pants and a tank top made from the same linen-like material. No underwear or a bra. Great. At least my tits are small enough that I won’t knock myself out if I have to run in this getup.
I tug the clothes on and finger comb my hair before wrapping it up in the towel. Just to be polite, I refold my dirty clothes and leave them by the door. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and someone will wash them, but most likely, they’ll just get incinerated. Not that I could blame them for wanting to set this stink pile on fire.
I’ve just finished towel drying my hair when another tug comes from my wrists. I sit and wait like the good little captive I’m pretending to be. This time, two little green guys arrive. One grabs my dirty clothes, makes a face, and walks away, holding them out as far from its body as I can. Sorry, little alien. The other one steps into the room, holding the same kind of rectangular plastic-looking thing toward me that Anna used when she administered my tests. I lean back, wary. I really don’t want to be sedated again.
The thing sparks to life in the alien’s hands. These must be some super high-tech version of our tablets back on earth. The alien opens its mouth, and for the first time in days, I hear another voice. Sure, it’s not a human voice, but it sure beats the suffocating silence I’ve been stuck in since I woke up in this cell. When the alien is done speaking, the screen of the tablet flashes, and a mechanical-sounding human voice fills the room, translating its words. “You will please follow me. We are going to run your aptitude tests for the job fair.”
Elation sings through me. Between my confinement in the SIP room on the Kennedy and now this cell, I’ve felt like a caged rat for what might be a week. I’m not getting drugged again. Instead, I’ll be granted a small taste of freedom. And what might be my only chance to inspect my surroundings. I might be able to learn the lay of the ship, find out how much time has passed since I was brought on board, and maybe even see my fellow Kennedy survivors. Never thought I’d miss my pain-in-the-ass scientists, but at this point, I’d give anything to see David push his stupid glasses up his face or listen to a lecture about robotics from Hannah.
I nod at the alien. “I understand. Am I to follow you?”
It nods back at me and motions toward the door. The hulking guard behind it shifts in the hallway, scarlet eyes fixed on me.
“I’ll behave,” I tell it.
It makes a snuffling sound like it understands. The lizard grins and steps out of the room, and the magnets on my cuffs cut out. I rise to my feet and pace toward the door, a strange zing of adrenaline pulsing through my limbs. Freedom! my mind sings. I do my best to tamp down my response to being let out of my cage. No doubt there are sensors trained on me right now, and I don’t want anyone to misread my excitement as something else and decide to lock me back up.
The second I step into the hall, the warrior is on me, not touching, just crowding into my space, sniffing. I stand my ground and prepare to fight off a wave of nausea, only this one doesn’t smell. At least not like rotting meat. Instead, it has a strange, chittering scent that skirts across my senses like an insect. Its head rises a foot above mine, so it has to lean down a little to get a good whiff of me. The membranous wings at its back flutter open, making me feel even more claustrophobic than my cell does.
“Dude, personal space,” I say, trying to keep calm. I want to shove this thing away from me, but so far, it’s done nothing to harm me, so I cannot resist its inspection.
I’m surprised when the thing actually takes a step back on its own. And then my surprise turns into outright shock. “Sorry,” it says, voice low and tectonic like a landslide. “You smell like someone I know.”
Holy shit, it speaks English.
A million questions pop into my head. What kind of alien are you? What planet are you from? How did you get stationed on this ship? Who taught you English? Why don’t you smell like five-day-old intestines that were left out to rot in the sun? That last one seems a bit rude, and the rest are just me being nosy and starved for conversation, so I settle on, “What do you mean I smell like someone you know?”
The thing winks at me, it actually winks, and then steps back even further and falls totally silent. A little tug comes from my pant leg, and I look down to see the lizard alien gesturing toward the other end of the hall. My foot lifts seemingly of its own volition, ready to follow the non-verbal directive.
Shit. Not again.
I take a deep breath and pause, my muscles twitching with the need to move. The alien gives me a funny look as I stand there and wage my internal war. Walk, my body demands. NO! My mind screams back. That wasn’t a command. It was a direction suggestion. I don’t have to follow it.
Put your goddamn foot down, Gabi.
A shudder runs through my body, but somehow, I manage to plant my bare foot back on the floor. “Do you want to lead the way?” I ask the alien, feeling a thrill of victory shoot through me.
It lifts its shoulders in something like a shrug and then starts walking. I pause before following it, just because I can, and smile the whole way to the testing chamber. I’ll take whatever progress I can get. Today, I resisted a suggestion. Who knows, maybe in a week, I’ll be refusing commands.
My good mood deflates within a minute of being out of my cell. As we tread down the hallway, I notice two critical pieces of information. Number one: the manufactured gravity onboard is lighter than what it is on the Kennedy, which is based on earth’s gravitational field. Number two: there’s more oxygen in the air. I didn’t notice these things in my room, so the false atmosphere inside of it must be attuned to humans. Pretty handy since these aliens capture so many of us.
The lighter gravity I can deal with, the oxygen overload, not so much. Sure, it might make me feel slightly stoned for a little while, but if the levels are too high, it could eventually kill me. I eye the lizard leading the way. If these creatures are advanced enough to single tune cell rooms to their occupants, then they must know how much oxygen humans can deal with before pulmonary toxicity kicks in. Then again, assumptions have gotten plenty of people killed in the past.
“Can my body handle the oxygen levels of the ship long-term?” I ask.
The lizard throws a nod over its shoulder and keeps walking. That answers that.
I turn my attention toward our surroundings. On the Kennedy and all the other human ships I’ve been on, the hallways are rectangular. These are circular. And instead of white lighting, neon pinks and blues radiate from long strips inlaid into the ceiling and floor. It paints my surroundings in a strange kaleidoscope of color. The walls are made of the same smooth, matte material that lines my cell, darker veins running through it that I now know outline hidden panels containing God only knows what.
We don’t pass a single creature as we walk. Is that intentional? Did they clear the halls before letting me out? My ego isn’t really big enough to swallow that idea, so it must be something else. Maybe everyone is holed up in cells and labs, or the ship is just so big that the other crewmembers and captives are busy elsewhere. Unlike human vessels, there aren’t any windows in the hall looking out into space or in on rooms. It’s disorienting not to have any idea where I am. For all I know, we could be walking along the hull of the ship or deep inside the very heart of it.
I don’t ask. Because it doesn’t really matter. If these aliens dole out rewards for good behavior, then I want to save my questions for the important things. Like are my brainiacs okay? The captain may have aborted my mission, and the scientists might have bugged the crap out of me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I care about their welfare. There was a reason I was assigned to them, and I can’t help but worry that without a babysitter to keep them out of trouble, their lack of common sense has gotten them into some shit.
My worry about them falls away when I’m led into a large, circular room. The walls here are white. The lighting is so bright that I shy away from it at first. I’m disoriented just long enough for the lizard and the soldier to slip back out the door, leaving me alone.
I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.
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.