The second I come to, I grab for my weapon.
I hit an empty holster and swear. I dropped the damn thing on the way up. Without pause, I go for the knife in my boot, eyes darting around for any imminent threat. I’m ready to go at some alien bastards.
Where the hell are they? I’m surrounded by humans, about a hundred other victims.
The low vibrations of large engines fill the air, muffling the worried noises that come from the people. I scan them for a familiar face, but I don’t know any of the men and women in the holding tank. Many of them are injured, some bleeding. They probably got hurt running from the tractor beam. Some other colony was hit hard. We lucked out with the sandstorm in Dallas. Everyone who was outside when the storm started had probably headed in.
I pull off my goggles, then my mask. My freaky red hair spills down my back, full of sand. It always is. Nothing we have invented so far can keep the dust out when the wind blows that hard. I brush a few stray strands from my face and do my best not to hyperventilate. Focusing on the hair and the sand helps. For a second or two, at least.
Under the adrenalin rush, my mind is fuzzy from being knocked out by the beam. Somewhere in the fog of waking up, I can almost catch images. I think, while I was out, I dreamed about the guy on that magazine cover again. This time, I almost caught him.
I don’t care about dream guy. All I want is to find my way back home, to my sister.
Knife out, I move toward the nearest wall, acting all nonchalant, in case the alien bastards are watching us on camera. People shift out of my way. Some follow me with their eyes, others turn their heads.
As soon as I reach the gray mass of the wall, I realize it’s some kind of a stretchy membrane. I stab my knife into it with all my strength. The blade bounces right back.
I try again and again and again. Same results.
“Guns don’t work either,” a guy says about a dozen feet from me. He’s a grizzled man in his fifties, mixed race, scarred. He pushes his top up and shows me the gun tucked into his waistband. “I already tried.”
I can see no signs of bullets on the membrane, just as I can see no scratches from my knife. I nod my thanks for the information, then hide my blade back in my boot, and slide down to the floor that’s made of the same bouncy, gray, indestructible material as the rest of the holding tank. At least I have my back to the wall. I prefer this position to being in the middle of the crowd.
I glance back to the guy who’d talked to me, envying his gun. He has turned away already.
I should have given my SIG to Lily. The gun cost an arm and a leg, and she would need it now that I’m no longer with her. Instead, the SIG is lost in all that sand, hard-earned money wasted.
The thought of Lily having to face tomorrow alone is like a knife wound in my chest. I can’t touch that now. Not yet. If I pull that blade out, I’ll bleed to death. She’s probably hurting too. She’s probably figured out by now that I’ve been grabbed up.
Every time we go up to the surface, this is a risk we take. It’s not like I never thought about it. I knew that this was a distinct possibility. I imagined what it might be like. But the reality is still scaring the crap out of me.
“Hi.” An older woman with long, graying hair scoots closer.
Maybe she thinks if worse comes to worst, my knife can protect her. I’ll do my best.
She’s not the only one with tears on her cheeks. Even some of the men are surreptitiously wiping their faces with their sleeves.
My eyes are dry. As scared as I am, I’m also furious. Mostly at myself. Instead of daydreaming about baked potatoes, I should have been listening to the sky more carefully. But as angry as I am, I’m even more grateful.
Thank God, Lily is safe. Thank God, she has the magazine. Thank God, I could stay with her this long. She’s eighteen. She’s going to make it. I’d been sixteen when our mother died and I had to take over.
I tap my comm unit.
“Out of range” is the answer.
That explains why nobody else is using theirs. I turn it off to save battery.
“Do you know where we’re going?” the gray-haired woman next to me asks on a quiet sob. She could be my grandmother, but she’s the size of an adolescent, probably due to malnutrition. Her elbows are pointy enough to be used as weapons in a close-quarters fight. If she can gather up the nerve to use them.
I shake my head in answer to her question. How could I know? How could anyone? Many had been taken, but none ever came back.
“They’re space pirates, aren’t they?” she asks through her tears.
“Probably. But we’re okay so far, right? Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
We know little of the aliens, other than that they’re humanoid and we’re at the very edge of their expansion, far from the law and order of their central Federation. We belong to a zone that’s kind of like the Old West used to be. Anything goes, to the victor the spoils, and all that.
“I am Delores.” The woman sniffs. “Dee. From the New Orleans Colony.” More tears roll down her face. “I have five grandchildren.” Her eyes are plaintive, as if the grandchildren should somehow earn her an exemption.
I don’t think it works like that. “Ava. From Dallas.”
“What do you think is going to happen to us?”
“We’ll have to wait and see.”
I don’t think she really wants to know the truth. Because the merciless truth is that we’ve been scavenged. The space pirates will do with us the same as Lily and I do with the stuff we scavenge on the surface. The pirates are probably taking us to some market where we’ll be sold.
The stuff people on Earth scavenge is sold either as food or raw materials or—in the case of curiosities like the magazine—rare collectibles to some rich admirer of the past.
I hope I will be sold to someone who collects Earth humans. I can sit in an oversized canary cage happy as shit, if it means I won’t be going into a grinder for an exotic human burger in an alien restaurant somewhere.
“If they wanted to kill us, they would have already killed us, right?” Dee asks.
Lily and I used to wonder why the people who are taken don’t escape and come back. Now I know. For one, the holding tank is one solid bubble—no doors, no sign of any kind of opening. Two, say I got out of this room and single-handedly killed every pirate on board. I don’t know how to drive a spaceship. Big, giant problem.
So, escape plan numero uno: Get away from the pirates as soon as we land, then find a nice alien pilot willing to take me back to Earth. They all can’t be asshats. There has to be one decent person among them.
My best guess is that would not be the pilot of this ship. There might be, however, other pilots where we are going. So, until my circumstances change, I just need to chill and fly under the radar. Fit in to survive is my standard modus operandi anyway. If there’s a conflict, back down. Don’t get exiled from the colony.
“Let’s just sit here and make no waves,” I tell Dee.
Of course, short of starting an actual riot, I don’t know what kind of waves I could make. As I think about that, an alarm beeps. Dee grabs onto my arm.
The blinking lights remind me of our underground warning lights that let people know a rolling blackout is about to start to save energy.
Dee grips hard enough to leave bruises. “Oh please. I need to get back to my grandchildren. Oh God. What does this mean?”
I don’t get to tell her that I don’t have a clue either. Once again, I lose consciousness.
The guy of my dreams is there, waiting, except now he’s exactly like the football player in the magazine. I can no longer remember their differences.
Shadows loom behind him. He reaches a hand toward me, but I turn and run from him, my heart pounding.
When I wake, I don’t know how much time has passed. I’m lying down, still in the hold, and my back is sore as if I’ve been lying in the same position for way too long. I’m starving, and my lips are cracked from dehydration.
Her only response is a frightened whimper.
I swallow painfully, groggy, with a buzz in my ears and a fuzzy film in my eyes. I’m almost too weak to sit up. My best guess is that I’ve been out for several days. I shake my head, then groan when the holding tank spins.
I’m reaching up to press my hands against my eyes when a slit appears in the seamless curved wall across the room from me, and for a couple of seconds, I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating. Especially when a dozen aliens come in; different sexes and sizes, different colors, but all humanoid, if in a slightly off way.
Some have wider eyes than I’m used to. Some have way thicker hair. One has a jaw as pronounced as a Pitbull’s. It’s like looking at a surrealist painting. They seem weird until I realize that they’re the product of evolution, too, adapted to their own planets.
They have one thing in common: they’re all wearing some kind of a drab uniform, a small red/gold symbol on the shoulder providing the only dot of color. Apparently, nobody has any fashion sense in space. They don’t look scary-cool like I’d expect from pirates.
When the woman in the middle finally speaks, her English is so bad, I have to concentrate to understand her. Especially when she says her name.
Dee tugs my elbow. “What’s she saying?”
“I’m pretty sure she said they are some kind of Federation agents. We were captured by pirates. We have just been rescued. We are being transported to the nearest Federation planet.”
“And then back home?” Dee’s eyes are begging. She’s holding her breath.
I don’t want to promise too much. “Don’t know. She didn’t say that.”
And Agent Woman is already gone, along with her friends, so it’s not like we can ask questions; although everyone around me is laughing, crying, or shouting like mad.
In short order, we are led to a transport area where we’re loaded into brown pods—two dozen people in each. I saw a burned-out bus once, during scavenging. The pods are about the same size, but a little rounder on either end. They look like large, flying cigars, equipped with plastic-looking benches.
Dee is no longer with me. On my right sits a man in his thirties, his fingers rubbing his knees, his eyes closed to block out everything. On my left, a girl about Lily’s age whispers, “I’m Jess. Cleveland.”
She has large brown eyes and a pointy chin, dark hair in pigtails. She could be a manga character. “Do you think they’ll sell us as sex slaves?”
“I don’t trust them.”
Yeah. Me either. I should be more freaked out than I am, but I’m still dizzy and disoriented from hunger.
I can barely do more than hold my head up as we’re taken to what we are told is a hospital. I want to pay attention but the best I can do is catch disjointed impressions. I do get a closer glimpse of the round patch on our rescuers’ shoulders—probably the insignia of their Federation. It looks like two golden worms doing the nasty on a red satin sheet.
When the pod opens, we’re inside a hangar attached to the hospital, and we’re escorted in. We never catch a glimpse of the planet or anything outside.
My comm unit and knife are taken away, despite my loud and borderline violent protest. We’re asked to strip, are thoroughly disinfected then examined, inoculated with God knows what, provided fresh clothes—loose beige pants and matching tunic—then given food.
Jess groans and holds her nose with one hand. “It’s revolting.”
The green slime is worse than the worst synthetic food I’ve ever eaten, but I scarf it down anyway and then lick the plate clean.
Jess stares. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“They’re not going to break me with the food. I’ve eaten moldy dead rats.”
Her eyes go even wider. I guess life at the Cleveland colony isn’t quite as dire as it is in Dallas.
All around us, people are shouting questions at the agents, but we receive no answers. I think only Agent Woman speaks English, and she’s not here.
After the food, we’re given rooms; two dozen of us to a room—not separated by sex. Nobody seems to care. Jess grabs the bed next to me and grins. Apparently, we’re best friends.
We take turns in the bathroom.
“Running water!” Jess squeals.
Actually, running water is something of an exaggeration. The alien shower works with mist, some kind of a low-water techy thing.
We all had a thorough cleaning upon arrival, just hours ago, but we all take showers anyway. It’s too much of a novelty, too big a temptation to resist.
“Now what?” Jess asks when I come out.
“Now we wait until they tell us what they’re going to do with us next.”
I expect another visit from the alien agent woman who speaks English, but as soon as everyone takes their turn in the bathroom, the lights dim. Since there’s nothing else to do, everyone goes to bed.
Jess whispers to me about her parents and little brother. “One time he put glue in my hair while I slept.” She pauses, struggling with tears. “I miss him.”
I think of Lily, but I don’t talk about her. Thinking about her hurts plenty. I need to find a way back home. In the morning, I’m going to track down Agent Woman and demand our immediate return to Earth.
Only as I doze off—too fast, considering I’d just slept through several days—do I realize that either the shots or the food must have been laced with a sedative.
The football player Lily and I saw in the magazine is in my dream once again, and I’m frustrated that his face has overwritten the original dream guy. He still has his shadows. Four men, I think.
This time, when he reaches for me, I take his hand. Thrill and panic pound through me. I feel as if I’ve done something enormous, something irreversible.
He doesn’t say a word. The only sound between us is me whispering to myself, “Don’t let me regret this. Don’t let me regret this. Don’t let me regret this.”