The transport vessel raced to an impossible speed, bouncing us around like ragdolls inside.
The terrified eyes of the two other celestial pets stared at me, followed by their screams of panic.
All of this told me one thing…
Today was the day I would die.
“They are going to peel our skin from our bodies and eat it right in front of our dying eyes! Oh, Heavenly Father! I heard that is what they do to the humans. We should never have come to this planet. I had been warned this would happen. The Torin will eat us alive for invading what is theirs,” cried the woman I believed to be named Rue.
Her name very well could have been Ruth or Ray, for I hadn’t been paying that close attention to my travel mates. None of us had really spoken much. We all voyaged together for the same purpose—to meet our future masters—but none of us connected over that fact. There were no long, bonding talks about what it would mean to be a pet. Nor were there confessions of fear or nervousness about meeting the men who we would soon be mated to. We all were tired and battered from the long journey by the time the three of us connected in our final space vessel to travel the rest of the way as companions. Most of the time we slept, or stared out the windows at the vast and open space with stars shimmering against the blackness in the far distance. It was a near solitary and silent trip until now.
When we had landed on the planet of Floris, we boarded a small metal carriage that would take us the rest of the way on this foreign ground. It reminded me of an old-fashioned stagecoach of the 1800s, but rather than pulled by horses, it was pulled by large animals that resembled a horse mixed with a wooly mammoth of the prehistoric days. Two human drivers sat on the outside of the carriage, using whips and chains to control the beasts used to transport us. I had been told that oil, gas, and electricity did not, and would never, exist on Floris. It had been mandated so. The new settlers who governed the planet would not replicate what they believed had ruined Earth. They would keep living to the basics. Minimalists. Rue had even commented when we first arrived how much Floris reminded her of the Wild West of years long gone on Earth. It was like stepping back in time on this newly discovered planet.
The other woman in our group, Dabney, held the archaic golden cross around her neck between her fingers and sobbed uncontrollably. Maybe she was silently praying through all those tears, or maybe she was mourning the life she once had. I’m sure when she was either forced to, or willingly decided to become a celestial pet on Floris, she hadn’t even entertained the thought that she would die in an alien attack. We were all told that Floris was far better than our destroyed and crumbling Earth. It was a safer planet than Earth. A new place to call home. A planet that had fresh air, clean water, and land to grow food on. This new planet was just like what Earth once used to be. Just like in the history books, Floris was the new western frontier. Yes, aliens lived on this planet. The Torin. But we were also told that, as celestial pets being brought to our new masters, we would be safe. There had been other planets discovered before Floris that offered the same, but only the rich could afford the luxury of colonizing there. The expense and demand were far too great for most. But Floris was different.
Early settlers—regardless of their income—had made the dangerous journey to a planet inhabited by lethal creatures, hostile aliens, and the deadly unknown all in the hopes of a better life, but now word had been sent that the voyage to Floris was safer. It was time for more inhabitants to move and create a homestead, thrive, and hopefully survive. The society of this new planet had formed, and the need for celestial pets was in high demand. The miners, the farmers, the original ruthless-yet-brave settlers—the men—all were in need of companionship. The pets would be their mates. It was the way of Floris. This planet gave women who had no money and resources an option. Even a poverty-stricken woman could now have breathable air, which was so very different than the toxic air of back home, and the sustainable soil, which no longer existed on the rotting planet of Earth, not even for a price. We were given no other options if we wanted to inhabit this planet. It would be as pets… not as free women.
To be owned, meant life.
To be possessed, meant survival.
To have a master, was to be my destiny.
It was either that, or die a slow and torturous death on an Earth that no longer provided for the human race, but rather sucked from the life that remained. Earth had become the monster that would destroy us all. To exist, meant calling Floris your new home, but only a few were lucky enough to be able to do so. I guess I was one of the lucky ones. I guess…
I pulled back the dirty curtain of the ship to see if I could see my killers approaching. Would they be green and have odd-shaped body parts like all the stories spoke of? Would the aliens have long black hair that cascaded down their bare, scale-skinned backs? Would the beasts they rode be devilish red, with horns like the devil, and grotesque like I saw drawings of? I wanted to see. I wanted to see the aliens firsthand. I wanted to stare death straight in the eye.
“Close that!” Rue shouted. “Don’t let them see us! Don’t let them know that humans, women, are in this ship!”
I glanced at her, not knowing how to tell her that there was nothing we could do. We were going to die no matter what we did. There was nowhere to hide in the small metal box we rode in. We were at the mercy of the approaching aliens—and aliens had no mercy. I did as she requested, however, since I couldn’t see anything but the cloud of dust caused by the steel wheels cutting through the dry terrain anyway.
The sound of the beasts and cries of death getting closer, followed by the gunshots fired by our transport vessel drivers, made that fact even more clear. We were not outrunning them, nor did I ever think we would. I heard more gunshots from the distance, not belonging to our drivers. Did the aliens have guns? I thought they only had arrows, but maybe they too carried guns. How many were there? Without looking, I couldn’t guess how many aliens were outside attacking.
Dabney’s sobs grew louder and more ragged, blending with the howls of the raiders. Feeling sorry for her, I reached for her hand, maybe offering a little solace to her in her time of death. I wasn’t one to give comfort, affection, or any act of love often. Growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, as well as raised by a strict fisherman and a pious priest’s daughter had taught me to be cold and distant. It was the way of our family in our devastated, crumbling, coastal town. My hate for my family, for my town, for my life as it was, all led me here… about to be slaughtered by the aliens. Would I do it all over again? Would I have stayed in Salem knowing that all the horror stories of how very few travelers actually made it to Floris were true?
The answer was an absolute no. I would rather die a courageous woman as I was now, than suffer life under the miserable rule of my parents.
“I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die,” Rue chanted in a tiny breath as if that would help the situation.
Screams from all of us ricocheted off the walls of the ship as an arrow shattered the glass and whizzed by our heads. Sounds of guns intensified, yet the ear-piercing screams from the aliens seemed to fade, and then eventually the transport vessel slowed until it reached a complete stop. The gunfire ended, the battle cries ceased, and all we could do was wait.
Dabney clenched my hand but silenced her sobs. We waited. We waited…
I could hear the sound of movement of bodies outside the ship, the crunch of boot against ground, and I knew it was just a matter of time until I would be staring directly in the eyes of my would-be murderer. I put my finger to my lips, signaling for the other women to be quiet. Although I had no idea why I did so. The aliens knew we were inside. They knew.
The door opened, causing all of us to jump and cower as far away as we could. I had expected to see the face of a Torin, but instead it was the face of a human. A regular human’s face like those of our drivers.
“Well, ladies, it looks like today is your lucky day,” the man announced in a thick drawl, again reminding me of an old western movie. He tilted the rim of his dusty hat with his filth-encrusted hand in a polite gesture. “We just saved you from an alien attack.” He looked toward his right and gave a small grimace. “Can’t say we helped your poor menfolk though. They look like a tailor’s pincushion with all those arrows popping out of them. With the poison the Torin put on those arrows, their skin is dissolving and leaving an awful stench.” He took a few steps back, opening the clearing of the doorway. “Come on out and meet my brothers. Don’t be shy.”
Both Dabney and Rue looked at me for guidance as if I somehow had become the leader of the damsels in distress gang. Not having any other options, I gave a nod and led the way to what I could only hope would be safety. I didn’t know what to expect, but we wouldn’t be skinned and eaten at least. I couldn’t rule out possible death yet. Though the man who greeted us looked dirty and rough, he had been civil. The man even extended his hand as I exited what I once thought would become our coffin and squinted against the bright suns—Floris had three suns, all much smaller than the sun I grew up with my entire life.
When my eyes adjusted and I steadied my legs, I saw two other men of similar appearance raiding the bloody and sizzling dead drivers’ pockets. I hadn’t spoken but a few words to our escorts, but I still felt awful for their demise. They had arrows stabbing their bodies, and a final look of terror frozen on their faces. Both Rue and Dabney gasped when they too saw what occurred to the men by the hands of the aliens while we awaited our death inside, protected by the metal siding of the ship.
The two brothers stopped their scavenging and walked toward where we all stood. One of them stared me directly in the eyes with his dark brown ones. He had a layer of dirt on him as well, but he didn’t seem as dirty as the other two. His black hair peeked out from under the black felt of his hat. He didn’t look like what I imagined would be the appearance of a ruthless criminal, but he was stealing from the dead, so he clearly was one. He was tall and broad, and as he approached closer, both Rue and Dabney took steps closer to me as if I could somehow protect them.
“Why are you women heading this way?” he asked, almost seeming angry at us for doing so.
“To meet our masters,” I said, not breaking my stare from his. I didn’t want to cower to his intimidating presence, but I was smart enough not to provoke the man by acting defiant.
“Don’t lie to us!” the man standing behind us spat. “No master would allow his pet to enter alien territory.”
“Why are you traveling alone?” the man still glaring at me asked.
“Like I said… to meet our masters.” I swallowed back my sour disposition and took a deep breath. Acting sassy or righteous wouldn’t help any of us. “Our future masters. They requested for us to become their celestial pets.”
“But you have never met these men?” the man asked with what looked like genuine curiosity in his eyes.
All of us shook our heads in answer.
“Lookee here, boys. We got ourselves some pets,” said the other brother standing next to the man who was still staring me down. “Not much of a haul on this here ship, but we got ourselves some pets out of it at least. One for each of us! These creatures are hard to come by on Floris.” He chuckled, clearly enjoying his own sick humor.
The man couldn’t be serious, but it was enough to terrify Dabney all over again. She clutched her cross and began crying. Her little whimpers acted as the only sound on the silent plain.
The man from behind walked around and stood in front of us. “No need to cry. We aren’t going to hurt you. Well… unless you give us a reason. I’m Pasco McCullen, and these are my two younger brothers Erik and Shay.” Erik was the one who hadn’t taken his eyes off of me, yet I still refused to back down from his stare. The deepness of the brown in his eyes threatened to swallow up my soul, but I held steady. “Hell, if it weren’t for us, you all would be skinned one by one by those Torin back there. You are riding smack dab in the middle of their land. Any fool knows this canyon is a damn death trap.”
I finally broke my stare and looked around. Where were the Torin? There was evidence of aliens with all the arrows, but they were clearly gone. “Did you scare them off?” I asked.
Shay snorted. “Nothing scares the Torin. They simply knew the package being delivered wasn’t worth the risk of life or the lives of their war beasts. There were only four of them.” He glanced toward the horizon. “But they’ll be back looking for revenge soon with a lot more. So we better get out of here.”
“You saved us?” Rue finally spoke. “Why?”
Shay nodded. “I guess you could say that.”
“We had been stalking this canyon all day. The cargo of this here carriage belonged to us,” Pasco clarified. “We weren’t going to let no alien have it.”
I noticed that Erik hadn’t said a single word since staring at me. Was he trying to scare me? Was he trying to make me fear the thoughts going on in his mind? I would never dare admit it to him, but it was working.
“What do you have in your luggage?” Pasco asked, sizing up the trunks strapped to the top of the carriage. “Any valuables?”
I shook my head. “Just clothing.” I didn’t know if that was the truth for the other women, but admitting to jewelry or family heirlooms wouldn’t do them any good.
I shook my head again. I didn’t have but a few cents to my name, and based on the fact that both Dabney and Rue were becoming celestial pets, I assumed their financial situation was the same as mine.
Erik climbed the ship and unfastened the trunks, tossing them to the ground. “Get what you can carry, and dress warm. We’re heading toward the Harvest Mountains and the nights get cold, so this isn’t the time to take your vanity into concern. If you got thick shoes or boots, pack those as well.” His voice was deep and husky, no nonsense laced every single syllable he spoke.
“We are going with you?” Rue asked, then staring at me like she needed a translator.
“Where the hell else are you going?” Pasco asked with a smirk. “You are still two to three days away from the nearest colony.”
“What about our masters? They will be expecting us,” Rue said with the rising panic inside her obvious in the tone of her voice.
Pasco laughed. “You don’t have any masters yet. And the way I see it, the poor fools who are waiting for you will just have to keep waiting. You pets now belong to us.”
Pasco walked up to Rue and grabbed her firmly by the arm. “I don’t want no lip out of you. My brothers and I own everything that is on this ship, you hear? These beasts, whatever we want in those chests, and now we own us some pets.” He glared at her and didn’t even soften when tears fell freely from Rue’s eyes. “If it weren’t for us, you women would be dead. And as far as your future masters are concerned… they can just assume you are.” Pasco looked at me. “Now be polite and tell us your names.”
“My name is Maya Woodward from Salem, Massachusetts,” I began. “And the woman you are hurting is Rue.” I then pointed at Dabney who still cried and had turned the shade of crisp white linen. “This is Dabney.”
“We don’t have all day,” Erik called, hopping off the ship. “The Torin will return. So get busy.”
I led the way toward the chests, knowing the other women would follow me. The men weren’t causing us harm yet, and they had a point. The aliens would be back, and they wouldn’t hesitate to kill us all. I opened up my small chest, knowing there was no way I could take the entire case with me. I wasn’t really sad over leaving it all behind as I could see that Rue and Dabney both seemed to be. I had no family heirlooms or anything of my mother’s that meant anything. Leaving it all behind would be fine by me. I rummaged through my clothing and pulled out a gray wool coat that had kept me warm in the harshest of coastal storms. Salem had winters that could make any bone so brittle it could break like a twig, but this coat had always provided me warmth. I also pulled out thick leggings to go under my pants, a heavier shirt, and a lace bra that had been one of the few luxuries in my life that made me feel feminine and pretty.
“You won’t be needing lace bras or fancy undergarments where we are going. Just wear some panties to cover your lady bits,” Pasco barked out. “That is until we get someplace warmer. Then pets wear nothing but a collar.”
I placed the bra back in the trunk and grabbed two pairs of underwear with no frills. I also grabbed a pair of thick-soled boots I wore often back home while helping my father clam. They did a good job at keeping the wet and cold out. I had known many a person who had lost a toe or two in the frigid Atlantic Ocean, and thanks to these boots, I had kept all mine intact.
Erik had found some burlap bags and tossed each of us women one. “Fill these up with what you can.”
I took hold of the bag and was able to cram everything I wanted inside. I still had some free space, so I reached for my ivory brush and mirror. They were the only possessions of any value I had ever owned, and when I saw that Erik noticed I had pulled them from my trunk, I froze. I expected he would confiscate them for himself and possibly be angry that I hadn’t admitted to having them earlier. His dark eyes studied them in my hand, then he looked at me, but there was no anger present on his face for all I could tell. The other two men were busy releasing the four beasts from the transport vessel to claim for themselves. Erik then surprised me and nodded, silently giving me permission to place the brush and mirror in my sack, which I did before the other brothers took notice. With an inch to spare, I made room for my heavy nightdress that covered me from wrists to ankles.
“Are there blankets inside the ship?” Erik asked me.
We each had several blankets to help keep us warm and comfortable during our journey. Erik entered the ship and then quickly exited with the bundle of blankets in his arms. He walked over to the beasts the brothers were preparing for the journey and strapped the blankets to the back of the large creatures. He really did seem to be taking our warmth into consideration.
Erik walked back over to me. “What about food?”
I pointed to a secret compartment on the floorboards of the ship that held a large bag of supplies. “They kept the food in there. Some dried meats, some beans, and some rice.” There actually was a good deal of food. I would say a few days’ worth for five people. As Erik was pulling open the compartment, I added, “In that chest behind where the drivers sat, is where they kept all their cooking supplies and pots.”
“Don’t just stand there. Get them,” he commanded. “Make fast work of it. It’s likely the Torin will be coming back.”
Realizing I was the first woman packed and the only one not doing anything useful, it did seem silly I wasn’t being of any assistance. The fear of the Torin had me hopping at his order. It felt odd, however. I wasn’t sure how to view the brothers. Were they our rescuers? Or were they our kidnappers? Should I be helping them, or figuring out a way to run and escape? But I did agree that we didn’t have time to just wait here for the aliens to return.
I wasn’t one to ever be helpless. I grew up to be tough. Being the only child meant I had to help my father with his fishing business often and play the role of son, yet getting the respect of daughter. My father ruled with an iron fist and a brutal cane he often and relentlessly used. My father resented I was not a boy, and he made me pay for that fact on a daily basis. And if he wasn’t making me pay for it, then he was making my mother pay for only giving him a useless daughter, which then she would turn around and make me pay for once again. The only good that came from the hell of my youth… strength. So yes, I wasn’t one to be helpless, but as I struggled with the large chest belonging to the drivers, I was beginning to feel pretty damn weak. No matter how hard I pulled, the heavy trunk remained in place.
“Hell,” I murmured under my breath as I put my back into it and gave it my all but still to no avail.
A big hand covered mine, and I looked over my shoulder to see Erik behind me, reaching over to assist in pulling the cooking supplies down. “You shouldn’t speak like that,” he said in a deep voice. He wasn’t really scolding but more like informing. “Your name is Maya, right?”
I didn’t say anything, and I certainly didn’t apologize for my profanity. I didn’t belong to this man or answer to him, and after the situation I just experienced, I had every justification to say whatever curse word I pleased. I had left the tyrant, otherwise known as my father, not only miles and miles behind me, but I’d put an entire galaxy between us. I, of course, knew that being owned by a man I had never met before as a celestial pet opened the doors to possibly meeting another tyrant, but I also knew if it ever got too bad, I could simply pick up and leave. I had done it once before, so I could just as easily do it again. This planet was large, and I could figure out a place to hide and start a new life if I had to. Anything was better than Earth and my father.
“We need to get going,” Pasco called out. “The suns will be setting soon, and we need to be far away from this canyon before they do, or we risk not being able to have a fire tonight to fight off the bitter cold. We don’t want the Torin seeing our smoke.”
Erik nudged me out of the way while he lifted the trunk I was struggling with and then placed it on the ground. He tossed me another sack. “Fill this up with the essentials.” He then went and began helping his brothers tie everything to the beasts, preparing them to act as the pack mules.
I quickly went to work at filling the bag. I grabbed a cooking pot, all the bowls, cups, and the utensils. I then saw the large knife used for cutting the dried meat. Stealing a glance at the brothers, distracted with loading everything with their stolen cargo, I wrapped the knife in a muslin cloth and secretly stuck it into my boot. The brothers hadn’t done anything to hurt us… yet. But I wasn’t going to be foolish enough to assume they never would.
After a few more minutes of grabbing the last of the essentials, the brothers had agreed they had acquired enough, and it was time to go. Erik reached for my hand and led me to his beast. Without asking for permission, he placed both of his beefy hands on my hips and lifted me off the ground, assisting me onto his creature. I glanced at both Dabney and Rue who seemed panicked when Pasco and Shay had done the same and placed them on the saddles that were strapped over the large backs of the Floris beasts. Rue rode with Pasco, Dabney with Shay, and I rode behind Erik on his beast. I wondered for a brief minute how they decided who rode with whom, but I then realized it didn’t really matter. We were leaving our transport vessel, our dead escorts, the arrows of the aliens, and our one-way ticket to becoming a celestial pet in what was supposed to be a safe and protected human colony. What happened now, I had no idea. But we were alive. I had to count that as a blessing.
Pasco led the way, hitting his leather reins against the mane of his spotted red beast, setting all the other beasts into a slow but steady trot. Erik detoured from the group, leading his beast to the dead escorts, and reached for one of the men’s hat. It was made from worn brown leather with a sky blue band around the center of it. He removed the hat and placed it on my head before I could even flinch away.
“I don’t want it,” I argued, disgusted with the fact that its owner was now dead staring at me with hollow eyes. The smell of his rapidly decaying body made me gag, and I worried I would vomit what very little food I had in my body. I couldn’t risk losing the calories so I struggled to hold the bile forming in the back of my throat.
“You will wear this. You’ll need a hat to keep your head warm and the weather off your face.”
I shook my head. “No! It belongs to that man.”
“That man is dead.”
“I can’t. It’s wrong.”
“Listen here. You will do as I say and wear this hat! I’m trying to be patient of this downright prideful and stubborn streak I see on you, considering what you have been through and all. But I’m telling you to wear the damn hat, and you will!” His voice boomed, and the way he glared at me from over his shoulder made my heart skip and my belly flip. “You are a pet clearly in need of major training, but I don’t have time to start in your teaching now. So listen to me or else.”
I swallowed back the stream of curse words that wanted to fly from my tongue and nodded. I hated that I allowed him to win, yet I wasn’t prepared to go up against his wrath… at least not yet.
Satisfied with my answer, he then kicked the sides of his beast so we could catch up with the others.
The speed of the beast, the motion of its large body beneath me, forced me to wrap my arms around Erik and hold on tightly. I had no choice but to press my body up against a complete stranger, as I wore a dead man’s hat, riding off to the unknown.