The cargo hold was dark.
An oppressive heat had kept my clothes sticking to my body for the past three days and even when I hid in the shadows by the corner, it was useless to fight it. A series of pens lined the flat metallic walls, much like those you’d encounter in a slaughterhouse, with two women in each of them.
Separating each of the pens was a shimmering force field, making it impossible to escape. There were no locks we could pick, nor any hinges we could burst open, and the force field was as resistant as a concrete wall, even if the only sign that it was there was the occasional flash of color.
“They’re coming our way.”
Fingers dug into my forearm and I looked to the side to see Isabella’s eyes widening, studying our enemy.
I fidgeted with my bracelet. It had been a gift from my nieces and I had worn it the night I was kidnapped. Now it was my only connection back to Earth.
Locks of sweat-darkened hair were plastered to her forehead, and her lips were pressed into a white line of concentration. Her large brown eyes were honed in on something outside our pen and when I followed her gaze, I shuddered.
Despite what should have been growing familiarity, there was something repellent about our captors.
Eight-feet tall but, despite their height, there was nothing elegant about them. Their bodies were compact, hard muscles bulging under their ragged uniforms, and the way they moved spoke of raw power. They had four arms, each slightly longer than a human’s, and their skin was of a deep-blue pigmentation, one that almost made it seem as if they could glow in the dark.
Two of them stopped right outside our pen, their dark eyes turning into slits as they looked at us. Their faces reminded me of angry gorillas, and the slabs of muscle on their shoulders reinforced that idea.
I pushed Isabella back as gently as I could. I had no idea what these two wanted with us, but I wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.
Time after time I’d caught her studying them and the energy walls that made our cages, carefully observing everything around us.
If someone was going to get us out of here, it was going to be her.
One of the aliens pulled back his lips into what resembled a smile, then used his elbow to poke the other in the ribs. They clicked their tongues, a guttural sound emerging from their throats, and I had no doubt they were talking about us.
Even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, they seemed to be amused with how quiet Isabella was. Gritting my teeth, I took one step forward and straightened my back, showing that I wasn’t afraid of them. Of course, I was afraid. I was freaking terrified.
How could I not be?
I still remembered how it had felt to wake up here, my head throbbing with pain. Before that, the last thing I remembered was that I had finished my night shift at the diner and that I had decided to go out for a quick run. Then, I had vague memories of a blinding white light and, next thing I knew, I was being held up inside a pen as if I were some kind of animal.
The aliens began to confer between themselves and, for a moment, it looked like they had forgotten about us.
“The first time I saw those alien creatures, I think my brain froze,” Isabella murmured. “I mean, I always believed there might be intelligent life in the galaxy, but…”
“I know,” I said. “It was like seeing one of those creatures emerge from the shadows shattered my whole worldview in less than a second.”
“I can’t figure out what the tie is,” she continued. “There’s nothing in common among all of us. Location, age, health, not education or background. Were they just near Southern California and we were convenient?”
I had no idea why a group of four-armed aliens had decided to capture an overworked waitress like me, or why a shy bookworm like Isabella had been thrown in this pen, and I wasn’t sure if we’d ever find any answers to all our questions.
We couldn’t understand a word of what the aliens said and, besides, they didn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with us. The only time we interacted with them was when they pushed a few plates of a foul-smelling soup into our pens.
Now, though, it seemed like things were changing.
One of the blue aliens shuffled his feet and grabbed a handheld device from his large belt. He pressed a button on it and part of the force field shimmered weakly for a moment. Then it disappeared. Putting the force field remote back on his belt, the alien pointed at Isabella and barked something.
“They want me to go with them,” Isabella whispered, face pale, walking back until she had her back pressed against the cold wall of the cargo hold. “Oh, God, this isn’t good.”
“Hey, assholes,” someone shouted from one of the other pens, and I recognized that voice as Camilia’s. According to what she had told our ragtag group of captive women, she was a nurse.
She was also one of the kindest women in our group. Instead of wallowing in fear and despair, she had spent the last three days ensuring we all remained healthy, or at least as much as she could from another pen. That didn’t mean that she was soft—in fact, for all her kindness, she seemed pretty tough on the inside. “Leave her alone, you stupid apes!”
The alien that had spoken growled something unintelligible, then strode into our pen. He shoved me to the side, causing me to stumble, and he reached for Isabella.
Before he could grab ahold of her, I sprung up to my feet and stood between him and a terrified Isabella.
“If you want to get to her,” I said, my heart beating at a thousand miles an hour, “you’ll have to go through me.”
I doubted that he had understood me, but that was irrelevant. He glanced back at his friend—or colleague, or whatever these stupid ape-looking aliens were—and shrugged. Then he grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me out of the pen. He clicked on the remote again, reactivating the force field, and started leading me toward the chair at the center of the room.
That thing had been there from day one, a monstrosity of unpolished metal, but none of us had figured out a reason why. The aliens didn’t sit on it, and we had never seen them use it for anything. Now, though, I was about to find out why they had put it there.
I felt a ball of anxiety growing in my stomach as I looked at the monstrous chair, one so large that it’d make me look like a toddler if I sat in it, and I immediately tried to dig my heels into the floor.
That didn’t help.
The aliens pushed me forward despite my thrashing and forced me to sit down. Leather straps were fastened around my head, wrists, and ankles, so tight that I couldn’t move an inch.
“Leave her alone, you bastards,” Camilia continued crying out, her voice echoing throughout the cargo hold.
The others joined her in an angry chorus so deafening that a few other aliens appeared in the cargo hold, each of them obviously tasked with scaring the women into shutting the hell up.
I wasn’t sure if they retreated into silence or not, by then the only thing I could hear was the thunderous pounding of my own heartbeat. The two aliens were now opening some sort of metallic briefcase, and even from my position, I could see an electronic dashboard with a jungle of wires inside.
Grabbing some of the wires, which resembled the electrodes you’d find in a neurosurgeon’s exam room, they attached them to my temples. My throat grew dry, panic welling up inside me, but I did my best to remain calm.
The aliens talked for a couple of seconds, then one of them pressed a couple of buttons on the briefcase’s dashboard. Almost immediately, I felt as if someone was driving a nail through the base of my skull. I felt electricity running through my brain, and I gritted my teeth so hard that pain shot up my jaw.
I closed my eyes as my thoughts scattered like birds taking flight and, for a weird and terrifying moment, the way I thought seemed to change. I was no longer thinking in words, but in images. Then, as fast as it had appeared, the electrical current started to dissipate.
I opened my eyes, as tired as if I had just finished an ultra-marathon. My breathing was ragged, and I was feeling dizzy and nauseous. When the aliens removed the straps that were keeping me in place, I didn’t move an inch. I remained glued to the chair, unable to lift a single finger.
“Did you fry her brain, or what?” the taller of the aliens asked, looking at the other with narrowed eyes. “They’re small. Maybe they can’t handle it.”
“She’s fine,” the other replied, waving a hand at me. “She just needs a minute.”
Only then did it dawn on me.
Somehow, I was able to understand them perfectly. I could tell that they weren’t speaking English, my brain was decoding their words and translating them into syllables I could understand. The machine had messed with my brain, no doubt, but it had given me instant-translation powers. Dazed and confused, I finally rose to my feet.
“What is going on here?” I asked the two aliens, and they turned around to face me. They didn’t seem too happy about the fact that I was asking questions. “Who the hell are you? What’s all this about? Let us go right now!”
Before I realized what was happening, a giant blue hand flew toward my face, and the coppery taste of blood flooded my mouth. The alien slapped me so hard that I stumbled back and landed on the chair again, my cheek burning from the impact.
“The first lesson of being a slave,” the alien that had slapped me growled, “is that you only speak when spoken to.”
“Slave?” I repeated, my heart tightening inside my chest.
“What did you think you were?” he asked, leaning into me so that his face was level with mine. He was grinning. “I’m not running a cruise ship here, woman, in case you haven’t noticed.”
This was bad.
This was really bad.
“I don’t like this,” General Troko said. “I don’t like it one bit.”
Grabbing the monocular from his hands, I brought it up and peered into the lens. In the distance, no more than a two-hour ride away from our current position, we could see the bright glow of a camp. The night was dark and filled with shadows and even though I could see the faint outline of our red moons, they were nothing but two waning crescents. The only true light came from that camp.
“You really think those raiders are soldiers from Aetam in disguise?” I asked the general as he perched atop his numa. Even though the Kingdom of Aetam hadn’t flexed its muscles in a long while, the increasing reports of raiders in the borderlands brought the worries of war to the forefront.
“It’s likely,” he replied. “If nothing else, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Aetam is incentivizing their own troublemakers to come here. It’d be in line with how they operate.”
“Does any of this really matter?” Spurring his mount forward, Lomav stopped beside us. My younger cousin was smaller than I, although he was just as broad-shouldered. He had placed a couple of thick pads on his saddle, and only that way did he seem as tall as Troko or I. “They’re a threat to the realm, to the stability of the kingdom. I say we go there and slaughter ’em all.”
“That’s not how we do things,” I snapped at him.
“Then what’s the plan?” he asked, trying to hide his annoyance. It was there, though. “Should we go there and ask them nicely to return to wherever they came from?”
“No,” I said, and now it was my turn to hide my own annoyance. I was better at it than Lomav, though. “We flank their position and capture them. Once we have them rounded up, we can start asking questions. There’s no need for bloodshed tonight.”
Clicking my boots against the shell of my own numa, I headed down the hill we were on. Our troops were waiting there, thirty full-bodied D’Tali clad in leather armor and ready for action. Only one of them didn’t wear any armor—he had a black cloak on, the hood pulled over his head—but nobody seemed surprised. Even though most soldiers weren’t exactly sure of Vokar’s role, they all knew he was one of the most fearsome soldiers in the entire army.
Dismounting, I waited as Vokar made his way toward me.
“Have you beaten some sense into that little fucker’s head yet?” he asked me, pulling his hood back to reveal a hard expression. He tilted his chin toward Lomav, and his expression broke as an amused smile appeared on his lips. “The idiot has been telling our troops about how he could take the entire camp by himself. I say we let him do it.”
“As tempting as that is, I can’t afford to let my family line disappear,” I said, laying one hand on my sword’s pommel, the same sword my father had wielded in countless battles against the armies of Aetam. “He’s right about one thing, though, the kingdom needs stability.”
“I doubt he’d bring any kind of stability,” Vokar said, jerking his thumb at Lomav. By now, the squat D’Tali noble was talking with a group of three soldiers, swinging his sword around as he retold some bullshit war story he had probably made up. It was embarrassing.
“Anyone have a solution for the kid?” I heard someone say beside me, and I glanced back to see Troko dismounting from his ride. The general clicked his tongue, his eyes set on Lomav as he continued his boasting.
“He’ll learn,” I said, deciding to put an end to this conversation. Neither Troko nor Vokar liked or trusted Lomav, but I still hoped that my young cousin would learn the ways of the D’Tali. He had to.
His enthusiasm would be tempered in time; experience would give him prudence.
“Now, does everyone know what we need to do?”
“I’ve briefed the men,” Troko replied. “They’re ready.”
“Then let’s make it happen.”
Moving as one, we all climbed onto the backs of our respective numas, and the hulking beasts ambled through the vast plain under the cover of night. Two hours later, when we finally closed in on the raiders’ camp, the entire platoon split into four different squads. I led the one tasked with charging the front, and Vokar and Troko were in charge of the flanks. As for Lomav, he was responsible for bringing up the rear and stopping any of the raiders from fleeing.
We moved fast, and we moved hard.
Spurring our numas on, we galloped into the camp and through the empty spaces between the tents, knocking out a lone sentry in the process. The raiders, all of them Aetamians clad in scavenged armor, clambered from their tents, reaching for swords and bows in a panicked frenzy.
Once we were closer, it was impossible to mistake them.
The slightly different skull shape from the D’Tali and the broad, but slightly hunched posture, were easy to spot.
Our people might be cousins, but there had never been a lasting peace between us.
A few arrows whistled past my ears, but soon enough the Aetamians decided against taking us on. As soon as they heard the other squads coming up on their flanks, they turned on their heels and started running into the darkness of the night.
“Herd ’em up,” I cried, urging my men to keep pushing the raiders toward Lomav’s men. Everything was going according to plan. No more than a few seconds later, though, I started hearing the clang of swords, as well as the hollow cries of Aetamians being cut down.
Rushing toward the rear of the camp, I came across Lomav, atop his numa. He wiped the blade of his sword against his cloak and sheathed it. At his feet were the Aetamian, all of them dead.
“They refused to surrender,” he said, horns held high. “They were a risk to us all.”
Once again, he had gone against my direct orders, and now we couldn’t interrogate any of the raiders.
If things kept going this way, I’d have to cut Lomav out of any military operations.
He meant well, I knew, but sometimes he was just a little too loyal.
I ordered him to check the bodies, my tone harsh, then turned on my heel.
“The kid fucked it up, huh?” Troko asked me. He was standing by the entrance of the largest tent, Vokar beside him, and the two watched as the soldiers rummaged through the contents of a large trunk. “That’s too bad. Aside from the usual junk, there’s nothing here that ties these assholes to an officially ordered attack by Aetam.” He shook his head and sighed. “Well, at least we got rid of another group of raiders. I guess that has to count for something.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“About smacking him.” Shaking my head, I looked up at the night sky, a million stars sprinkled on that dark canvas. “I know he’s my cousin, but this shit is starting to get ridiculous.”
“Want me to pay him a visit?” Vokar offered with a grim smile. “I’m pretty sure I can make it clear that love for the kingdom is all well and good, but it doesn’t count if he doesn’t obey his king’s orders.”
I frowned, then shook my head. “Tempting, but unless things change, I need to keep him around.”
“I know you haven’t had any luck yet, but there’s no reason to assume the situation will remain the same.” Laying one hand on my shoulder, Troko looked straight into my eyes. “You’re going to find a mate, Dojak, I’m sure of it.”
“Yeah, right.” I pursed my lips. “How many D’Tali women have I met these past few years? Let’s face it, I’m not going to find a mate anytime soon.”
I hated to face the truth, but it had to be done.
A D’Tali could only procreate with his true mate, and so far, none of the D’Tali women I had met seemed to be the one.
That, of course, was a problem. D’Tali women were rare, which meant there weren’t many I could meet.
My options were becoming extremely limited and if I didn’t produce an heir, Lomav was the next in line for the throne.
“It will happen,” Troko insisted. “Why don’t you ask the Ancestors for a sign? I know you’re not big on tradition, but maybe if you tried it…”
“As if that would happen.” Sighing, I looked up at the sky once more, then lifted both my hands up. “Oh, mighty Ancestors,” I continued, half-frustrated, half-mocking. “If there’s someone out there for me, show me a sign. Guide the way toward my fated mate.”
“Hilarious,” Troko said with a frown. Clearly, he wasn’t happy that I hadn’t taken him seriously.
“See?” I asked. “The Ancestors couldn’t care any less about—”
I was cut short by a deafening, thunderous sound.
Then, no more than a second later, a bright glow took over the sky, pushing the darkness away. With my mouth hanging open, I watched as a fireball cut through the sky, moving so fast that I could barely follow it with my own eyes. It descended until, with a violent thud, it finally crashed behind the hills in the distance.
“What the fuck was that?” Vokar said, sounding just as awed as I.
“That was a sign.” With his hands on his hips, Troko seemed immensely proud of what we had just witnessed.
“I doubt that it’s a sign,” I said, “but if it is, we’re going to find out soon enough.” I gave the two of them a nod and looked toward the hills. “Mount up. It’s time for us to go on a ride.”
“Stay strong, Camilia.”
“Do I have a choice?” She didn’t. It was bad enough to have been the first, but I felt pity for all of those who had to listen to the terrible cries of those before them, knowing their time would come.
No amount of comfort would help, and there was precious little on offer. Being able to understand the language of the Skarg—which I now knew to be the name of our captors— was no prize.
Camilia may have been strong, but even she was no match for these massive aliens. She had two good arms, but the monster manhandling her into the chair had four. It was best to save the energy and offer as little resistance as possible.
The brutes clamped her into the chair and fixed the electrodes to her temples. It had happened so many times now, that they had settled into a kind of rote pattern. Or maybe it was the fact that we had stopped struggling as vehemently that was making everything run more smoothly.
“Ready,” the Skarg said after he had locked her into place.
“I don’t want to do this,” Camilia called out to no one in particular.
“You don’t have a choice,” chuckled one of the creatures, despite the fact that she couldn’t understand him. Yet.
The device hummed to life, and Isabella and I gritted our teeth as Camilia writhed in the iron seat, hissing out a long, ugly groan. As tough as she could be, the searing pain of having your brain’s electrical makeup reordered would be enough to bring anyone to their knees. The sound of her agony raised goosebumps across my skin, and laughter from the devils in command.
“Do you have any idea how that thing might work?” I whispered.
“I’ve been watching,” Isabella answered, keeping her gaze fixed on the Skarg’s thick fingers as he fidgeted with the controls, “but it’s impossible to say. The closest I can imagine is that it reorders the comprehension centers, releasing any anchors to individual language.”
“So, you think we could understand anything?”
“It’s the best answer I’ve got.”
Camilia’s screams subsided and she went limp in the chair.
“Get another one,” the beast at the controls grunted, resetting all the dials. Peeling away the diodes, the other Skarg hoisted Camilia onto his shoulder and lumbered back to where she had been penned. It was a horrifying process, but since it had become evident that we were each to be subjected to it, and it came with some benefit, the process of harvesting women had become less violent.
It’s terrible how quickly inevitability can numb one into being a complacent, if not willing, victim. There had been reason to the way we were paired for captivity. Anyone deemed as physically strong had been confined with someone definably weaker. It was an ingenious way to prevent any possibility of escape.
But they’d overlooked other kinds of strength. With every woman the Skargs had worked the device on, Isabella had watched, every movement, every button pushed, every reaction, her expression blank with intense focus.
“Last one,” he called, dumping Camilia’s inert body onto the floor and shepherding out the last of us. “You know,” the ape leered as he passed our cell, “they’re all good looking, for humans. We’re going to get a good price for them.”
“Are you kidding?” The answer came with a bark of horrible laughter. “We’re going to be rich. It’s like I said during the harvest, when you pick the slaves carefully, you always reap the rewards.” They chuckled together as they bound Rebecca in place. The word slave lodged itself in my stomach, and I felt as though I could hear a wince echo out from each of the women.
An unearthly screech tore through the chamber, resounding off the metal walls and piercing my skull. Strobing light streaked out over everything, reducing our captors to flashed images of torment.
“What the hell is that?” the Skarg at the controls snarled in terror.
“The klaxon system has been engaged. We’ve been spotted.”
“Who is it? A security patrol? Or do you think it’s a Truvilian slaving vessel?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know? I can’t see any more than you can.”
“We can’t lose this batch. There’s too much riding on it. If it’s the Truvilians come to loot us…”
“There’s no telling what it is!”
“Well, find out,” the sitting Skarg bellowed. Isabella clung to me again, her eyes wide with terror. Things had been bad, but it felt very possible that they were about to get a whole lot worse.
“Sofia,” she whispered into my ear. “Please tell me you’ve got a plan.”
“The only plan I’ve got right now is that we all survive.” Turning to face her, I caught the full weight of the fear roiling inside her. “There’s not much any of us can do about it from in here.” It was true. We were all helpless. As much as I would have loved to have been able to rise to the occasion and become a leader, I was a prisoner, just like the rest of the women.
With a sudden jerk, the entire ship lurched to one side, groaning with the uneasy sound of straining metal. The sirens and flashing lights cut out, and an eerie dim glow from the emergency system cast dark shadows across everything. Our force field walls sputtered and dimmed, but stayed active.
“We’re hit,” the Skarg in control wailed.
“Shut up, and put her through it. I’ll be back.” Unholstering a nasty looking weapon from his belt, the hulking bastard shoved open the door and disappeared into the darkness. As loud as the siren had been, Rebecca’s scream was louder. It cut through my stomach, and I found myself clutching at Isabella to keep from going to my knees.
But then, in spite of my effort, I was on my knees, my ears ringing. Isabella was sprawled on the floor beside me, and I looked up in a daze to see Rebecca straining in the chair amid a shower of sparks. The world around us lurched again with a greater violence, and I slammed against the metal wall.
“How close?” Our captor burst back through the door, a deep gash across his shoulder, and clung to the side of the horrible chair to maintain his balance.
“Soon,” the other shouted, and I realized that it wasn’t screaming that was deafening us all anymore. It was a deeper, much more terrible sound. While I couldn’t comprehend the immensity of what it might mean, an animal dread bristled through me.
Hot wind came rushing through the open door, blasting over us as a thunderous crack ripped through the air. In an instant, the world fell into a terrible tumble.
We were all going to die.
Whatever force was firing on us had decimated any chance of keeping the ship intact. We were hurtling at an impossible speed, and I knew that some kind of crash was inevitable. Reaching into the chaos, I caught Isabella by the wrist and pulled her to me. It seemed that if we could manage to hang together, we might be able to minimize the danger.
It was an absurd thought, but anything that seemed like a plan was a comfort. We smashed into something, and I realized it was another body. A woman’s hands scrabbled across me until they caught hold of my belt.
Another woman’s grip could only mean one thing. The fields were down.
“Hang on,” I screamed, but it would have been impossible to hear me over the roar drowning out all sense. I could just see Rebecca, bolted to the chair as the rest of us were flung about in the shattering spiral.
Somehow, our cluster collected more bodies, and we clung together amid the madness in one sweating, terrified human mass.
With an unholy crunch, we slammed to the side of the vessel and felt the drag as it tore into the ground. It jerked, and spun again, tearing our knot apart and sending women sprawling amid the detritus clattering through the fuselage. With a horrifying rip, a hunk of metal peeled back, letting a blast of fresh air and blinding dust tear into the fetid darkness.
We ground on for a moment, then the creaking hulk rocked to stillness.
A collective groan wheezed up from all sides, and all I wanted to do was call out to make sure everyone was alive. With relief, I saw one of the other women help Rebecca out of the chair she was strapped to. But I couldn’t. My mouth opened, but there was no breath inside me to push words out. Instead, my head rocked to the side to marvel at the dazzling night sky above me. Light like I thought I would never see again.
Something in the rubble moved. There was a clatter of metal, and the acrid smell of electrical smoke stung my nostrils. From amid the debris, a massive figure rose unsteadily. It was one of the Skarg.
“Yugil? Yugil!” His voice croaked into the silence, until answered by an anguished moan. Picking through the wreckage, the hulking monster pulled his compatriot to standing. “Are you alive?”
“I hope to be.” With a shambling leap, the two apes heaved themselves through the jagged hole torn in the side of the ship, and disappeared into the daylight.
Every part of me ached with the kind of agony you only hear about. But, running a quick inventory, I was relatively certain that no bones were broken. At least none that would hinder me from rising.
Forcing the sweet air into my lungs and using a hand to try to filter out some of the dust, I pushed myself to a seated position, then found my feet. Too quickly. For a hazy, oddly pleasant moment, everything went gray. Then it went completely black.