“Are you sure?”
“Yes… I think. I could have sworn I saw something.”
Noise. A bang. A rustle. They were getting nearer. Iris held her breath and gritted her teeth to keep them from chattering in fear.
Don’t let them see me. Don’t let them see me.
She wedged her small frame even further into her hiding place, which might have qualified as a cave had it been larger. The claustrophobia was causing her heart to hammer. The space was cramped and hot, the humidity high thanks to the overhead mister that shot a spray of hydrating fog over exotic flora planted throughout the dome.
She could hear one of the guards whacking away at vegetation nearby as he complained to his companion.
“Why they don’t put trackers in these humans, I’ll never know.”
More whacking, this time from the other side. “They used to, back when they came here as slaves.” There was a thunk as the machete struck a vine, and a pungent smell as an alien plant released its sap. The plants were intended to mimic those on Earth; the smell was another reminder to Iris that no matter what they did to replicate her planet, this place was false. False, just like the promises they’d made to lure her here.
Whack! Whack! The smell of sap got stronger as the plants shielding the opening were whacked away. The guard kicked the pile of felled vegetation with a brawny boot that Iris could now see. The boot was tall, but so was the man. When she’d arrived on TraoX39, she’d been warned to expect that the inhabitants, while looking very much like humans, were much larger. She hadn’t been quite prepared for the reality of males and females who loomed over her, making her feel like a child.
The guard had taken a seat on the rock.
“It’s hot as a Vesusian desert,” he said. The boot kicked a pebble and Iris watched it roll a few feet, disturbing a spiny orange and black beetle that indignantly skittered away. “Maybe we should search one of the other domes.”
“Not until we finish this one.” His companion’s voice carried the weight of authority. Four others had been cleared, leaving just four more, including this one. “If we miss her, it’ll be the mines for us. The senators want her found before this hits the IntelliBoards, although I don’t know how they can keep it quiet.”
Iris felt her heart quicken. She wished the second guard had heeded the suggestion of the first and taken the search elsewhere. Her legs were cramping and one of her feet was going numb. She moved to adjust her position, but when she raised her hand to steady herself, the action dislodged a cascade of pebbles. Iris could see the front of the guard’s boots now as he turned. Suppressing a cry, she shrank back against the warm rock and held her breath, praying he’d not heard. But a second later a flash of light illuminated the small cavern.
“Randor, she’s here!”
She heard heavy footfalls indicating the rapid approach of the second guard, and Iris scrambled for the only weapon she could find—a handful of the pebbles that had fallen. She barely had enough room to draw back her arm, but before she could even throw them she felt something sticky thud onto her wrist. She acted instinctively, grabbing to pull it away, but her other hand stuck to the stickiness, which began to expand, covering both hands as it spread up her forearms like a fast-growing vine.
Now she did cry out as she realized the futility of her plan.
“Reel her out!” The guard’s voice was excited.
She was pulled forward, emitting an ‘oomph’ as she landed on the floor of her small alcove. Her trapped arms were pulled forward, and her body followed as she was dragged from her hiding place. In the light of the dome, she could now see the sticky blue gel encasing her forearms, the stream of it leading to the capture stick that had fired it. At the other end was the young guard who’d wanted to look elsewhere. Now he was smiling broadly as his superior praised his work.
“Good catch!” The second guard stepped forward. “Come here, you.” He hauled Iris roughly to her feet, then shook his head.
“You look more like an outpost beggar than the prize in a bidding war between two of the most powerful men on the planet.” The first guard was looking her up and down.
“She’s our prize now,” said the second. “A hundred guards dispatched and we were the ones who nabbed her.” He paused. “If there weren’t a bonus at stake, I’d teach her a lesson here and now.”
He reached for her upper arm and pulled her to him. “You’re lucky your fate isn’t up to me. I’d welt your ass before driving my cock into it. And I wouldn’t prepare you, either.”
Iris glared up at him. “I suppose you’ve had plenty of practice doing that with this one.” She jerked her head toward the other guard, and the one holding her raised his hand, but then begrudgingly lowered it as his companion reminded him she was to be delivered unharmed.
She had no choice but to stumble along behind the guard, who’d gripped the capture stick as he turned to walk back along the path he and his companion had hacked through the undergrowth. In a small clearing, a shuttle was waiting, and the senior guard lifted Iris onto the middle of a large disc mounted to the back. At the push of a button, the gel receded from the capture stick, but even if Iris had wanted to leap off the vehicle, she couldn’t have. Almost immediately, a glowing blue wall shot up from the outside perimeter of the disc, surrounding her. Iris knew better than to touch it; she’d seen burn marks on those who had.
She sat in the center of the disc, grasping for one of the handholds. As the vehicle began to move, she glimpsed the passing flora, pretending she was back on Earth, perhaps on a leisurely sightseeing tour. But it was a hard fantasy to buy. There was hardly any vegetation left on Earth. Not anymore. Scientists had ignored the rising temperatures and rising seas until it was too late. By the time the water shortages began, the effects of global warming were deemed irreversible. Migration to areas where water was still in ready supply resulted in crowded conditions, mass chaos, and disease as towns and cities sought to accommodate shifting populations. The scramble for technology that could convert enough saltwater into drinking water was decades behind schedule by the time cities—now bursting at the seams with refugees—realized supply of desalinated saltwater could not meet demand.
Nora had always said they were lucky—lucky to be among the chosen ones to enjoy a better life on a planet whose humanitarian outreach had saved them from the ravages of disease and starvation that were hitting Earth just as they’d left. But Iris had scowled at her idealistic friend’s use of the word ‘humanitarian.’ The only thing human about Traoians was their appearance. They were aliens, and despite the kindly appeal to shelter and house willing females from Earth, it was clear to Iris that they had an agenda.
The vehicle was moving out of the dome now through a narrow neck that emptied into one of the vast network of tubes running from domes to housing centers to government complexes. Beyond the transparent walls, Iris could see the Blood Mountains—vast, jagged peaks beyond the red desert that made the Himalayas look like molehills. Over the mountains, the triple crescent moons were hanging like a row of silvery slivers in the purple-pink sky. Iris had arrived on TraoX39 during the long dawning period. Nights here lasted years, and so did days. The dusks and dawns stretched for long months, giving the sky outside an ethereal look.
But everything became a blur as the shuttle began to move through the tubes, heading back toward the Acclimation House. Now she felt her defiance tinged by spikes of anxiety that only increased when she caught glimpses of her image on the IntelliBoards that loomed above the track. Attempts to suppress news of her escape had obviously failed. She closed her eyes. She’d not been easy to train. When she’d failed there had been consequences. Once when she’d forgotten the proper way to hold her hands, she’d received ten strokes across her bare bottom. What would they do now that she’d embarrassed her trainer and sponsors on Claiming Day?
Sector Seven’s Acclimation House had always reminded Iris of a glittering igloo with its rounded shape and reflective tiles and windows that moved to catch the light. When she’d first arrived, she’d been so intrigued by the structure that Nora had thought Iris was interested enough to relax. But much to the disappointment of her best friend, her guard had gone back up as soon as the Matron Amon had entered, her jowly face cold and imperious as she surveyed the new recruits.
Iris’ guard was up again as the shuttlecraft docked and the guards retrieved her from the back. They both flanked her now, nearly lifting her to her tiptoes between them as they hauled her inside.
The Acclimation House was usually a hive of activity, with Traoian matrons shepherding their human charges from one training session to the other. As they passed through the atrium, Iris glanced at the curved benches by the reflecting pool teeming with fishlike creatures, and recalled how Nora had squealed the first time she’d watched the aquatic creatures change color as they moved through the water. The pool was their favorite place to go whenever they’d earned a Leisure Token. It was popular with all the trainees, in fact, and at any given time there were always at least ten women sitting alone or together beside it. Today, however, the atrium was empty, and eerily quiet.
The solemnity of the usually bustling common space unnerved Iris for reasons she couldn’t fathom. Perhaps it was because they were all gone. Perhaps all the other women had been placed after she slipped away ahead of the Claiming Day ceremonies. Yes, she assured herself. That was it. She thought of Nora again—sweet, idealistic Nora—and hoped that the compliant blonde was too busy pleasuring her handsome Traoian mate to be following the news of her best friend’s escape.
“In here.” The guards had been silent as they pulled her through the hallways, and now they entered a room she’d never seen before. It was large, with stone arches spanning its circumference. Three stern-looking Traoian males were sitting in straight-backed chairs, flanked on either side by the three of the six matrons, their dark robes stretched tight across their huge triple breasts, their faces starkly white against their dark cowls.
The guards stopped about ten feet away from the row of chairs and shoved Iris forward so hard that she nearly fell. When she recovered from the stumble, she glanced up to see one of the brightly robed males lean forward in his chair.
It was Malo Yvin, Master of House. She’d only seen him twice, from a distance—first when he’d come to inspect the new recruits to the Acclimation House, and again when he proudly gave the news that one of the humans had fetched the highest bid in the history of mate matching. That recruit had been Iris, and now the Master of House who’d once smiled down at her from the balcony fixed her with a withering glare.
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” he asked.
“I won’t accept Ingus Sprang as a mate,” Iris said, ignoring his question. “I don’t care how rich he is. You can’t make me.”
Malo Yvin stood and walked over. His voice was soft when he spoke.
“Oh, Ingus Sprang is more than just rich. He’s the sector’s most noted philanthropist. He funded most of what you see around here, in fact. He could have had any human, just for the asking, but being fair, he joined the bidding like everyone else…”
“If he can have any human, then let him.” Iris forced herself to meet Malo Yvin’s dark, piercing eyes. With the shock of white hair that stuck straight up, and his curved beak of a nose, he looked to her like a very angry bird. If the thought amused her, the amusement would be short-lived in light of his next statement.
“You’ve disgraced this house,” he said. “And everyone has paid.”
The uneasy feeling she’d brushed aside in the atrium returned. “What do you mean?”
He turned to her. “Your fleeing ahead of the ceremony was such an affront to this esteemed Traoian that he withdrew both his request for you and his support for our house. And where the most powerful man in the sector goes, others follow. They all withdrew their bids.”
Iris’ heart began to pound as the impact of what she’d done settled in. Nora. When she’d last seen her friend, the dimpled face had been ecstatic. She’d been modeling her Claiming Day dress, giddy with happiness at having learned the handsome diplomat who’d placed the bid for her had won. Soon, she had told Iris, she’d be living in a comfortable apartment in the executive sector.
“You’ll come visit me, though.” Nora’s eyes had shone as she’d grasped her friend’s hands. “Won’t it be wonderful?”
Iris had smiled, wishing she could tell her friend that she was leaving, that she hoped her happiness in her new home would blunt the pain of her departure. To think Nora was suffering…
“Where are they then?” Iris asked of the other women.
“Moved to where they will be accepted,” he said, and Iris suddenly hated him for the smugness in his voice.
“Where?” she persisted, trying to keep the desperation from hers. “Where are the others?”
“Offered as mates to the lower-class tradesmen,” he said, then paused. “Except for you, my dear. You won’t be so fortunate.” He smiled almost indulgently, and Iris glanced up to see the same smile on the faces of his robed companions and the spiteful matrons.
A holoboard appeared in front of them. On it was a map that showed the domed complexes and the stretch of open plain and mountains beyond. Malo Yvin flicked his hand toward the screen and the field narrowed to the base of the towering peaks. Rugged huts and tents dotted the landscape.
“You don’t know much about TraoX39,” he said. “But why should you? Three nights ago—decades in your Earth time—General Augustus Bron led us to a great victory. His name, I’m sure you’ve heard. He ended the practice of trading technology for Earth slaves. Of course, it’s no longer necessary. Your planet can’t get rid of excess humans fast enough, now that it’s no longer sustainable.” He smiled.
“I’m not a slave,” Iris said. “We were supposed to have choices in who we accepted as mates.”
“Yes,” he said. “Of course, you now realize that was never the case. Not really. Human females are no longer called slaves, but for refugees, there are few choices other than what you are given. When you refuse, you’ll find the options to be much worse than what you declined.”
He turned back to the board. “The peace we enjoyed was not a lasting one. General Bron did not remain a general. He became a premier senator and while he curbed our colonization of other planets and sought diplomatic solutions to grievances, that was not enough to assuage our enemies. Bron became devoted to peace, and now his senatorial role is primarily as ambassador. Augustus Bron is currently on a diplomatic mission, leaving others to lead. These missions are wise, for we are constantly under threat, and the alliances we forge are beneficial. On the last moon cycle, we allied ourselves with the Trogarians, a fierce and warlike race—barbarians, really—who now keep an outpost at the base of the Blood Mountains at the mouth of a pass where some enemies like to sneak through.
“Interesting culture, the Trogarians… they are almost strictly militaristic, and because of the high casualty rate among the males and low birth rate among the females, two males within a bloodline mate with one female to assure that bloodline is continued. Sometimes that female is a Trogarian, but it doesn’t matter. No matter what race they impregnate, the genetics of the child are always full Trogarian.
“We seek to accommodate our allies; sometimes a Trogarian family will lose its female. That’s happened recently, when one died in childbirth. It was a particular tragedy because the two brothers in question are chieftains, and now they seek a replacement.”
Malo Yvin turned to Iris. “It won’t be an easy life for you there. The Trogarians are fiercely patriarchal, sexually insatiable and—by all accounts—brutal disciplinarians.”
“No…” She was shaking her head, even as he nodded to the two guards who stepped forward to take hold of her. “I know my rights!” Iris began to twist in their grip. “I want to see Kiplinger. I demand to be taken to the ambassador! I want a hearing!”
Malo Yvin chuckled. “Silly human,” he said. “Do you think you’re the first one from this house to demand a hearing today? Your friend Nora displayed a similar show of spirit, but I’ll tell you what I told her. Your ambassador is just as disappointed as we are. When we told him that we’d refuse future shipments of humans unless we were allowed to handle your disobedience as we wished, he gave us leave to dispose of you all as we would. The steady flow of humans is what keeps him living in such high style, you know.”
“No!” she said. “I don’t believe you!”
“It hardly matters,” he said. “Let’s hope your plight will serve as an example to future humans. You may not be slaves, but you are far from in control. You will be sent away to live out the fate you have earned. But first, we will see you publicly punished.”
Light filled the room, and Iris looked up and realized that the room was a type of theater, with an observation platform overhead. It was shadowed, but even so, she could now make out faceless Traoians as they silently filed in. Row upon row of them came. The silence filled her with a sense of foreboding.
“Strip her.” Malo Yvin’s voice echoed through the hall. “She doesn’t deserve to wear the Claiming Day dress.”
Hands were on her. The matrons. Iris felt her garment pulled off, felt the air touching the exposed skin of her naked form, felt goosebumps arise at the thought of what was to come.
The matrons—large, strong, and as foreboding as any large earth male—had terrified both Iris and Nora. With their robes and their cowls, they reminded Iris of giant nuns, and approached training of their charges with a fervor that was almost religious in nature.
Iris had not meant to beg, but when she saw two of the matrons pushing a punishment platform into the room, she knew what would happen next. She was pushed over the rectangular bolster, which adhered to her skin with the same gel the guards had used to trap her hands, securing her. Her feet barely touched the floor. She kicked her legs helplessly, and could not help but whimper when she saw the implement the head matron planned to use.
It looked benign enough, but they all did. This was a flat disc on the end of what looked like a rod. Iris had seen it used on others, had heard their screams. And now, even though she knew escape was impossible, she pulled against the suction of the unforgiving gel and rocked her bottom from side to side.
A large hand on the flat of her back held her still and a moment later, she felt a tap. Just a tap. But that’s how it began. The matron would barely impact the surface of the miscreant’s bottom with the disc. But that’s all it took. That’s all it took to dispense the pain micronics embedded in the head of the disc—tiny particles that spread over the surface of the skin and heated rapidly to a fierce burn before dispersing into the air as static charge.
Another tap. And another. Two more fierce burns. Iris was wailing now; these had been applied directly to the sit spot—that soft strip of skin at the junction of her buttock and thigh. Hot tears tracked down her face. She felt as though her bottom was on fire, even though she knew that the red circles would dissipate almost immediately, even if the agony lingered. The matrons never used any correction that left welts; unblemished skin on the humans was too highly prized.
Four more taps, and Iris felt as if the room was spinning. She could not move, could not escape. She could only wag her bottom as her garbled pleas for mercy filled the silent theater. She could almost feel the satisfaction of her tormentors. And when they finally released her, finally lifted her to stand on shaky, unstable legs, Malo Yvin’s sneer was the first thing she saw through her veil of tears.
“Chastened, are we?” The sneer faded. “You only think you are. But what happened here will pale in comparison to what awaits you. The Trogarians aren’t afraid to mark a female. Soon enough, you’ll regret refusing a civilized mate.” He turned. “Take her away.”