The party from the sky-star sat on special stools at the far end of the big single room that occupied the entirety of the shining, perfectly cubical building they had brought down from their dwelling in the heavens ten years before, when the Taking began. Gretchen counted them: ten—seven men and three women, it appeared, from their sizes and the length of their hair, though their clothing did not seem to differ according to their sex. All wore the same kind of tunic and the same kind of loose, long pants, though for both men and women the colors and patterns upon those garments seemed to possess an extraordinary variety.
“Come forward,” said a man’s voice. Gretchen did not immediately see who had spoken, and as she stood still in her best blue dress, patterned after the relics of the old days, she was conscious that if the first Taking had not happened, her mother would not have had either the fabric from which to sew it or the time in which to do the sewing. At the same time, as she searched the faces of the sky-people, she realized that her mother had made her the dress and then urged her to don it this morning because the sky-people had suggested that candidates for the Taking wear such dresses, since those sky-people who came to take girls into service had a preference for seeing the girls wear something nice and old-fashioned.
“It shows respect,” Gretchen’s mother said, when Gretchen had asked why she should wear what the sky-people wanted her to wear. “It shows that you want a kind master, who understands the value of a girl who respects him.”
“But why do they want girls to wear such old things? Why can’t I show respect by wearing clothes like theirs?” Gretchen knew all this talk would be for naught in the end, because she wouldn’t be taken. She just felt the need to lay the groundwork, in her mother’s mind, for the way Gretchen would disappoint her hopes of sending her daughter to the sky-star.
Her mother had sighed. “Because you’re a relict, Gretchen. You know that. If you’re taken, your children will wear those clothes.”
“But aren’t relicts people, just like them?”
“People, yes, but not like the sky-people. Don’t you remember what life was like before the Taking began? I know you were only ten when we came here, but don’t you remember how scared I was? I tried to keep it from you, but I could see that you understood, and I could see that you understood how much better things were when we came inside the enclosure.”
Gretchen started to feel terrible, then, and that was even before her mother had said, with tears in her eyes that made Gretchen cry as well, “Don’t you remember how your father died?”
“Come forward, girl,” the man said again, with only a very little less patience, and now Gretchen found him at the end of the semi-circle formed by the stools, ten feet away over a floor covered by a soft gray stuff that felt lovely on Gretchen’s bare feet. He had a round, red face and short gray hair, and he wore a green tunic over black pants.
Gretchen stepped forward, one step. She would not be taken, but simple defiance, they said, would not prevent it. Defiant girls got taken, too, and their families penalized for the girls’ resistance.
No, Gretchen knew she had only one hope.
“Further, dear,” said a female voice. Gretchen spun, trying to keep her face as blank as possible, and found the woman who had spoken, in the middle of the faces. She was strikingly beautiful, with long, straight black hair and very dark eyes. Her tunic and pants were both of a lustrous purple. “Right into the middle.” Something in the voice sent a chill down Gretchen’s spine, as if this woman could see right into her mind, and right through her feeble little plan.
Gretchen swallowed hard and started to take tentative little steps forward, casting her eyes down to the gray stuff on the floor.
“She’s playing stupid, isn’t she?” said another woman’s voice.
“Dear,” said the first woman, “please don’t think you can fool us. You won’t like the consequences.”
Gretchen’s heart quailed, but she continued to take the little steps. She heard the older man, the one who had spoken first, give a little sigh.
“I’m afraid you’re right, Diana,” he said. “Girl, what is your name?”
Gretchen lifted her face and turned slowly to meet his gaze, keeping her facial muscles slack. “Name is Gretchen,” she said as dully as she could.
The first woman, the one in the purple, laughed. It was a terrible sound. “Heather!” said the woman called Diana. “Have some respect for her brilliant performance.” But Gretchen could hear that Diana was stifling her own laughter.
What did I do wrong? Gretchen thought desperately. The only girls who came to the Hall of Taking who weren’t taken were those whose intelligence clearly didn’t measure up; the sky-people wanted girls whose children could grow up to be sky-people.
“Dear,” Heather said, “if we relied only on our impressions, perhaps we would have dismissed you. It was a good performance. But your brain was scanned when you entered, just like your ovaries, and we can see how intelligent you are, and how fertile.” She turned to the older man. “Fred, may I suggest that you make it clear to this lovely young thing that attempts to deceive us are not advisable?”
Gretchen felt herself start to tremble. No, she hadn’t been sure she could avoid the Taking, but something in her had felt so confident she had worked out a perfect plan that she had kept herself from imagining what might happen if the sky-people found her out. But she had heard third-hand stories of the punishments that sometimes took place in this room, and once, soon after turning eighteen, she had had to go with the rest of the adults of the enclosure to the public whipping of a woman who had smuggled goods from the enclosure for sale in the wild lands.
Fred made an impatient little sound in his throat. “Very well,” he said. “What am I bid?”
“Oh, ten,” said Heather.
“Eleven,” Diana contributed.
Gretchen could hardly understand why, but these simple, apparently unthreatening words inspired in her a terrible dread. Were they selling her already?
“Fifteen,” said another voice, very deep. It belonged to a younger, brown-haired man, perhaps thirty. He wore a white tunic over dark blue pants, and his light brown eyes seemed kinder, somehow, than those of any of the other sky-people. Suddenly Gretchen wondered if perhaps not all the sky-people were beasts who concealed their bestiality under gleaming surfaces and soft fabrics.
Heather laughed. “Oh, Martin. You are too much.”
“Anyone else?” Fred said. Silence fell. “Alright, Gretchen, please go to Mr. Lourcy over there for your punishment.”
“What?” Gretchen cried, turning wildly to the older man. “Please, no. I’ll be… I’ll…”
“Oh, hush,” Diana said. “It’s only a spanking, dear. If your little act was anything to go by, your backside is going to receive a great deal worse back home, and very soon. I can tell you’re a mischievous little thing.”
Gretchen turned to the woman, and saw such disdain in her hazel eyes that she suddenly felt like a little insect kept alive on sufferance for being mildly amusing.
“Diana,” the one named Martin said, “you really go too far. This girl may be a relict, but her DNA is the same as yours.”
Heather snorted, “Says the man who just paid fifteen credits to spank the relict girl’s pretty little hiney.”
Martin put out his right hand to Gretchen. She felt her knees wobble under her. “Come on, Gretchen,” he said, with a certain gentleness that seemed to make the flutter in her tummy even worse, “let’s get this over with. You were a naughty girl, and you need to learn your lesson.”
Gretchen looked wildly at the other six sky-people. During the exchange among Fred, Heather, Diana, and Martin, she had noticed different sorts of looks on the faces of the remaining five men and one woman, but for the most part they all had continued to wear a bored expression, as if they had seen all this before—even Gretchen’s attempt to deceive them.
How could she possibly go over and receive a spanking from that man? She saw instantly what it would mean: it would mean that she belonged to these people, that she would be a taken relict girl on the sky-star. Whether this man Martin Lourcy bought her, or another one of them did, Gretchen would go, belong to a man or a woman up there, and serve him or her in every way, including the most shameful.
“Heather,” Martin said. “I’m sure you won’t mind escorting her.”
Heather laughed again. The look on her face didn’t seem cruel, exactly, to Gretchen, but, like the expression on Diana’s face, it seemed to reduce Gretchen to a status so low that it seemed perhaps the relict girl might only barely be made out, crawling there upon the floor. “Certainly not,” she said, and rose from her stool. She took a step toward Gretchen.
Gretchen’s knees gave out, and she fell to the soft floor covering, crying. “Please…” she said, not feigning her fear in the slightest. Her mother had never spanked her, and Martin looked so strong. “Please, no. I’ll be good.” She looked up at Heather now standing over her in her purple garments. She saw that the purple pants were matched with something the woman wore on her feet, very unlike the sandals that were the only kind of footwear Gretchen had ever known, though most of the time she and everyone in the enclosure went barefoot.
Heather’s smile now had a little pity in it, she could see, but the older woman, who must have been thirty-five or thirty-six, reached down and took Gretchen’s upper arm in her grasp. She began to pull Gretchen toward Martin’s stool with surprising strength. “Come now, dear,” she said, “it’s not as bad as all that. And you’re going to have to get used to it, I expect, just as Ms. Renton says. A pretty girl like you is going to have her bottom smacked all the time, even if you don’t end up in our club.”
“Club?” Gretchen whispered.
“You’ll see,” said Heather. “Please don’t make us drag you and hold you down, alright?”
“Oh, Powers…” Gretchen sobbed, as she crawled, seeing Martin’s thighs, covered in the soft blue pants, just ahead of her now. It was the only prayer she knew. Some of the relicts kept to religions, new and old, but her mother had taught her only to address the Powers, whatever they were.
“Get up,” Heather said, now with less patience than she had had a moment before, as if Gretchen’s tiny prayer angered her. She pulled hard on Gretchen’s arm, and Gretchen managed to get her feet under her. She looked straight into Martin’s face. He smiled with a strange kindness as he looked back at her, considering that he had apparently paid money—a concept Gretchen didn’t truly understand even though credits were used inside the enclosure—to punish her.
“Over my knee, now,” he said, spreading his thighs and patting the left one. “Ms. Feld is right. The sooner you get used to accepting discipline, the easier it will be for you, Gretchen.”
“Say yes, sir,” Martin said gently.
“Yes, sir,” she said, feeling her brow crease in confusion and alarm.
“Now do as I’ve said, Gretchen.” He patted his knee again, but Gretchen felt glued to the spot and, her body shaking like a leaf, unable to move.
Martin sighed. “Heather?” he said. “Could you help her, please? Gently?”
Heather gave a snort that made Gretchen’s tummy flip-flop, and then the woman took firm hold of Gretchen’s shoulders in the soft blue rayon of her best dress, turning her and pushing her over at the same time.
Gretchen gave a little wail, but she didn’t resist—what would the point of resistance have been, now?—as she felt herself bent over Martin’s strong thigh.
“Should I bare her bottom for you, too?” Heather asked with a sort of vocal sneer in her tone.
“No,” Martin said. “I’m happy to do that myself.”