“Next! Regan Lawrence.”
I cringed at the sound of my name being called and walked up to the desk.
“Regan Lawrence? Female. Age 26. Location: Zone Seven.”
I listened as my statistics were cited at me and nodded, pushing the auburn hair away from my face. It was hot today.
The frowning attendant handed me my basket of rations and I smiled mechanically as I took it. I had learned as a child not to try to interact with the attendants. Ever since the war between the Verians and Earth had started, when I was just three, you were expected to take what you needed and nothing more, then return home.
“Harbord Griswald. Female. Age 24. Location: Zone Three.”
The voice of the attendant grew distant as I walked the path to the shuttle, where everybody from Zone Seven was being ushered. I took my seat, the same as always, and waited for the driver to bring the last few people onto the bus.
Finally, my seat mate and the other six people who had still been in line returned, and the engine turned. We jerked forward and I kept my eyes peeled to the window. The shuttle had a tendency to give me motion sickness. The jerkiness of the sudden stopping and starting as we attempted to navigate the debris-filled terrain between zones always made me mildly nauseated at best, and borderline sick at worst.
“When do you think the war will be over?” my seat mate, a young man named Trevor, asked out loud.
It was the question on everybody’s minds, but nobody asked it except the very young. I glanced at Trevor and back at the window before answering him.
“It will be over when one side wins.”
Trevor’s restless fidgeting stilled and I heard the soft escape of breath from his lips. I knew how he felt. We all felt it. But we would just have to go on living the way we were living until it was over.
It was a relief when we finally rounded the smooth curve that indicated we were near Zone Seven again. I was anxious to get off the bumbling, rumbling bus and back into my house, where nothing was bound to nauseate me except maybe the smell of my neighbor’s failed attempts at cooking.
The shuttle dropped us off at the entrance and we walked inside, each of us heading to our own homes. Some of us had bikes parked by the fence, while others chose to walk. I was one of the latter.
Things had changed on Earth since the war started, but not by much. We weren’t allowed to drive cars or overindulge in resources, so the military had set up the shuttles and rations bases. The Zones were divided based on necessity, and they were considered relatively safe places for us to go about our daily lives. The only difference was that in the Zones, debris from space was unlikely to destroy our homes. A shield was erected over each Zone to protect us.
“Welcome back, group two!” the loudspeaker announced. Everybody applauded our safe return, and I couldn’t help but smile at the custom. Things had gotten very dangerous out there, and about a year ago we had lost a whole shuttle of people who had gone out to retrieve their rations. It was a very sad occasion. The man I had been destined to marry had been on that bus.
The group dispersed once safely settled into Zone Seven, and I found myself wandering slowly to my little apartment, not in any particular hurry. I don’t know what was different that day, but for some reason I wanted to take in the feeling of walking through the camp, to really relish in it. I wrote poetry sometimes, in secret, and thought that maybe I would be able to explore the feelings that the rose in me as I observed the groups of people going about their lives as if a war wasn’t raging just beyond the walls of our protective sphere.
“Give it back!”
I furrowed my brow and whipped around, annoyed at the shrill voice of one of the children. Although we were under great protections, life existed mostly as normal within the zones, but children were definitely not supposed to yell unless there was real danger.
“No way,” an older boy said, taunting the young girl that had shouted. “It’s mine now. You shouldn’t have left it lying around.”
“Come on, Alex, please; just give it back!”
I found myself watching the exchange between the young girl, probably no older than six, and three boys whose ages must have ranged between seven and twelve.
“You know the rules. If you leave it on the ground, it means you don’t want it anymore, right?”
“That’s not fair!” the girl exclaimed. “I had to-”
“It doesn’t matter! It’s mine!”
The boys laughed and ran off, and I watched in surprise and amazement as the young girl chased the boys down, tackled the biggest from behind, and grabbed her small bundle away from him, then took off running just as the sirens for lock down began to blare.
But the boy shouting, who bore an uncanny likeness to the girl (he was probably her brother), couldn’t go after her. The sirens meant that there was an enemy spotted nearby and everybody had to return to safety.
“I’ll go after her,” I said to the boy, surprising both of us as I thrust my basket of rations to the ground and took off after the little girl. She was heading to the danger zone. If I didn’t catch her soon, it would be too late.
The soldiers were running from their posts as guards and heading to the frontlines, climbing the walls and pointing their guns out into the sky, ignoring the citizens below them. We were supposed to know our places by then. We should have been running toward safety.
Gracie crossed into the danger zone easily with nobody there to tell her to go back home, and I ran as hard as I could to catch up with the little girl, whose wide eyes were wild with fear and confusion.
“Go home!” I kneeling down and looking into the little girl’s eyes. “You’re in danger here. There’s been a sighting!”
Gracie gasped, her eyes suddenly locked onto the sky above my head. A feeling of dread gripped me as the little girl scrambled away and ran back in the direction she had come from.
“Keep running until you’re home!” I exclaimed, trying to stand up from the spot where I was crouched on the ground. But it was already too late. My limbs were powerless.
Confusion, and then dread, gripped me, and I knew that I had made a grave mistake. They had gotten me.
I squeezed my eyes closed, hot tears leaking down my face. I knew that I should have immediately returned home, especially after hearing the siren, but if I hadn’t followed Gracie, it would have been a small child abducted and taken away from her home. That would be a tragedy for her family and the community as a whole. No, I wouldn’t regret it. It was better that I had been abducted over a small child.
Still, as my body grew weightless and was carried closer and closer to the ship, I couldn’t help but shiver. I could see Zone Seven growing smaller, until finally, it disappeared behind heavy silver doors with a loud clank.
In that instant, I had the sinking feeling that I would never see home again.
“Into the cell with the others!”
I bit back the bile rising in my throat as the stout,
It was more than a cane though, I knew; it was a powerful weapon.
The cell was overcrowded with terrified women, their eyes wide with terror at the sight of the Pelin guard.
“We will be back on the planet Helna in approximately six Earth hours. I expect nothing but your utmost compliance. The prison guard is a Verian. As you can imagine, he does not tolerate any less. You’ve been warned.”
“Fuck,” one of the women whispered as I was shoved into the cell. “We’re being abducted by the Verians?!”
I landed hard on the ice-cold floor of the cell, and none of the other women made a move to help me up.
“I recommend all of you stay quiet, or suffer the consequences.”
The Pelin guard disappeared, and I got shakily to my feet to watch him go.
He was a small, ugly man, proud even though it was widely known that the Verians were bloodthirsty enemies of Earth, and the Pelins did their bidding. Apparently, their own planet had long ago been compromised by the warrior race, and now all that was left for the Pelin to do was accept their fate as the slaves to the Verians.
“Hey,” a woman’s voice hissed. “I know you. Regan, right? You’re that girl.”
I cringed. Why was it that even as I was being abducted, people could pick me out of a crowd? Wasn’t it bad enough as it was without being tied to my past?
“I don’t know you,” I said pointedly.
“Well, that’s just too bad. We’re from the same Zone.”
I sighed, turning to face her. “What do you want?”
She grinned. “Why don’t you tell us all a story then? Maybe ease up a bit of the tension we’re all feeling right now.”
I frowned. “I don’t know what you mean. I’m not a storyteller.”
“That’s not the way my dad would have it told,” the woman insisted. As I studied her, I realized she was actually more girl than woman. Just barely a teenager. She had probably been caught necking outside the zone with one of the soldiers. I knew her type a mile away.
“Your dad doesn’t know anything about me,” I mumbled.
But now, all the women had stopped their chattering, and I could feel their gazes heavy upon me.
“Is that right?” she asked, a soft, mocking laugh escaping her lips. “Well, some things never change.”
The conversation seemed to leave everybody around us scandalized, but nobody dared to voice the question on their minds. That left me with a question of my own. Sure, I had made some mistakes, but just what the hell was everybody talking about?
Fortunately, there was only one other woman from our zone in the cell with us, and she stayed quiet, watching the exchange with dark, serious eyes.
Before the subject was pursued any further, one of the Pelin guards made a round, passing in front of the cell. The women were suddenly animated and frantic, begging the small man to let us out of the cell. Promising things they never could have delivered.
I was relieved to have the attention taken off of me, but well into the night, I could feel the steady gazes of the two women from my zone upon me. In a way, I was glad to be leaving my reputation behind. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to deal with that cocky teenager much longer. I wasn’t known for my patience. And that would be the last lesson anybody needed to learn about me.
“Settle down and be silent!” a strong voice commanded, immediately grabbing everybody’s attention as the turbulence rocked the ship. “We will be landing shortly!”
Despite the nervous flutter in my stomach, I had to admit that the voice intrigued me. It wasn’t the smug, bossy voice of the Pelin guard. It was different somehow. Deeper, and far more masculine. He didn’t have to strive for control the way the Pelin did. He simply exuded it, and his confidence immediately quieted the women around me.
“There! Was that so difficult? My Freg, you humans are unreasonable,” the man said, striding into view. “You would never find Verians with so little self-restraint!”
I gasped inwardly. This wasn’t what I’d pictured the Verians looking like. The people on Earth portrayed them as horrific monsters. But this man was astonishingly handsome. I gaped at him as he continued his speech, completely zoning out as he went on about how much better his race was than ours. I just couldn’t stop looking at him.
First of all, he was tall. About a head taller than the men on Earth, and his body was packed tight with dense muscles that were made obvious by the tight, silk-like uniform he was wearing. He wore his silver hair long, with a few complex braids wrapped around his head. We had been taught that the braids were indicative of status on the planet Helna, and although he wasn’t nobility, it was clear he answered to it.
“When I open the door, you are all to line up and follow me out in single file. If you do not comply, you will face mortal consequences.”
I couldn’t stop staring at this man as he spoke. His skin was pale, but a ruddy orange tone brightened his chiseled features as his silver eyes scanned the crowd of women gathered in the cell.
I could tell the other women were just as astonished as I was by this man’s appearance, but his expression was no-nonsense and hard. He waited for us to all quiet down before speaking again.
“All right, we’re going to do this right!”
I was shocked by the man’s English. I’d assumed the Verians wouldn’t waste their time learning the dialects of Earth the way we’d been forced to learn to read and understand the Verians’ language. Apparently, though, they had.
The heavy door to our cell creaked open, and the handsome man’s voice rang out around us. “One at a time! Starting with you!”
He pointed at the woman closest to him, and then the next woman, until a line began to form deep into the long metallic corridor. I gasped inwardly when the man’s eyes bore into mine, and his long finger extended toward me. Up close, I realized that there were quite a few aesthetic dissimilarities between the Verians and humans. Though mostly humanoid, the Verians had ridges of bone – or was it muscle? – that formed a beautiful, intricate line reaching across the forehead, ear to ear, almost as if he were wearing a permanent crown.
“You next then,” the man said. Apparently, I had been staring too long, and the Verian wrapped his strong hand around my wrist and tugged me out of the cell. He clearly didn’t tolerate any sign of insubordination, and walked me to my place in line firmly, his mouth in a thin line once he deposited me in the back of the line.
“Anybody else pulls that kind of stunt and none of you will make it out of this ship alive!”
The threat elicited whimpers from the women around me, but I was quiet and stone-faced as he stared me in the eye. A slim, silver patch of hair was just beginning to grow on the man’s chin, which became suddenly apparent when the whisper of a smile creased his handsome face. It seemed funny to me that even the Verians could grow facial hair. I would have laughed, but the man’s silver eyes were watching me carefully.
“Know your place, female,” he advised. “Don’t waste my time again.”
I sighed, and the man turned his back on me and headed back to the cell. I was captivated by the sight of him as he worked; unbelievably efficient, and commanding without being cruel. It was definitely not what I had expected the people of Verians to be like. In a way, I guess I assumed we’d all be killed straight away. But it was common knowledge that they needed females. Why, we weren’t sure. We just knew women from Earth disappeared in droves, along with various resources. Clearly, to them, Earth was a treasure trove.
Finally, everybody was lined up, and the handsome Verian man made his way to the front of the line, his eyes sharp and his voice commanding as he spoke. “You will follow me now. Remember, non-compliance will cause consequences. Consider whether or not you are willing to deal with them.”
The women around me were quiet, but I could feel the tension in the air. We were marched forward, some women holding hands and others whimpering softly to themselves. I myself wasn’t trembling. I wasn’t even scared. All I could do was stare at the Verian man leading our line and wonder about his life.
What could possibly lead someone to thinking it was all right to take women away from their homes against their will, and do so with such conviction that half of us were sure that resisting would mean we were doing something wrong? It was baffling to me.
“We are about to leave the ship,” the Verian man said, pausing in front of a large doorway. “Remember what I told you.”
The man reached out and slammed his fist against a huge button, and a whirring mechanical sound suddenly ground into the air, and the doors began to open slowly. It was shocking how low-tech everything the Verians did appeared to be. And yet they still had some advancements over humanity. If they didn’t, the war wouldn’t have been raging quite so long as it had been. The doors had a medieval feel to them.
At first, nothing was visible but a small stream of light through the slit of the doors as they opened, but soon, we were looking upon a huge airfield, deserted and bleak, much like the terrain on Earth. In the distance though, there was much lush greenery, and the sun was shining cheerfully over the deserted wasteland. It was a strange picture.
As the Verian man marched us outside, I realized that there was an imposing gray building behind the ship. The Verian marched purposefully, and we were led to it together through the sandy dunes, squinting our eyes as the wind picked up and kicked dust into our faces.
“We’re going in there?” a woman near the beginning of the line exclaimed when we drew nearer, and the disturbing nature of the factory-like prison became obvious. She grew suddenly rigid, forcing the line to a halt.
“Yes,” the Verian man said, narrowing his eyes impatiently. “Let’s go. Now.”
But the woman was frozen in terror and scrambled backward, knocking two other women down to the ground.
“Halt!” the Verian exclaimed, his voice ringing out into the air like a shot. But it only fueled the woman’s panic, and she continued to try to crawl away, tears streaming down her face. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the poor woman. She was terrified.
The Verian started toward her, his hand drawn back and ready to strike. It seemed unbelievably cruel, and for the second time that day, I couldn’t believe what I was doing.
“Stop!” I cried, running between the Verian and the woman shivering in terror on the ground. “Leave her be!”
The women around me sucked in a collective breath, and I stared the Verian in the eye. All signs of kindness disappeared from them, and I swallowed hard. This was going to hurt.