I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. The image of the letters blinking in bright red seared into my mind, burning into me like a brand. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t focus on any of the graphs monitoring my vitals or even what I’d been forced to endure during the whole ordeal. The only thing that mattered was my result. I failed the only test that counted for anything.
I’ve been afraid of turning twenty-one my entire life, of the day I’d have to take the test that would tell me where I’d spend the rest of my life. My mother always reassured me, telling me that she was certain I’d be sent to sector two with every other intellectual because I’d done so well in school. I didn’t feel like I’d fit in there though. Parts of me did, but that wasn’t enough. It felt wrong. I felt like a fraud.
I didn’t know if I would fit in anywhere, to be honest. I was terrified that I was different too, but most of all, I was petrified that I was an Aberrant.
Earth doesn’t like those who are different. They get rid of them. I was terrified that they would get rid of me.
Turns out I was right to be scared.
The two doctors administering the test stood rigid as they took in the result by my side. The woman shook her head and peered back at me with a sorrowful glance. The man typed in a series of commands into the projected keyboard, like this was all a routine procedure that he’d done time and time again. He probably had. I wasn’t the first Aberrant to be identified and systematically exiled from the planet.
There was a very heavy silence in the room.
In less than a minute, there was a knock on the door. The male doctor opened it and six men entered the room. All of them were large and very heavily muscled. They all wore hefty black combat gear.
They were here for me. To make sure that I didn’t cause a scene.
The female doctor turned to me, her expression stern now, one of duty. She’d probably dealt with a countless number of women and men like me.
The ones who were different. The ones who didn’t deserve to spend the rest of their lives on Earth. This was normal for her. I wondered how many people like me she’d seen. How many people she’d watched have their very futures ripped away from them because of those terrible red blinking letters.
“Nina, your test has identified you as an Aberrant and because of this, you cannot be placed in any of the sectors. You can no longer remain on Earth. You have the following choices. You could spend the rest of your days on Eos or you will be sold to an alien mate from the planet Kryoan. You must make your decision now,” she said, her tone completely absent of any emotion. The male doctor didn’t say anything at all. I hated that he didn’t.
It wasn’t a choice. Not really. Eos was a terrible place. It was the stuff of nightmares parents used to get their children to obey and go to bed when they were told. The stories said that it was a radioactive planet, ruined by a long drawn-out war between two alien species, and Eos had been abandoned ever since, at least until recent years. Life there would be short. The radiation would quickly ruin a person and eventually it would kill them. The rumors also mentioned a growing race of barbarian aliens on Eos, beasts that ruled with an iron fist. If you accidentally wandered into their territory, it would be certain death.
I didn’t want to die.
I’d heard nothing of the planet Kryoan before. I didn’t know if it was dangerous or what kind of aliens inhabited it.
“Choose,” she pressed.
I sighed. There really was only one answer.
“I choose Kryoan,” I said softly, my voice dejected.
“You’ll come with us now,” one of the six security escorts said. His voice seemed loud and forceful, leaving me with no question that I was to follow and if I didn’t, they’d make me. I finally turned my eyes away from my result and looked back to the enforcement officers.
Around their waists were thick belts, complete with stun guns, particle emitters, and laser guns. They all held police batons in their hands, thick black rods that looked like they would hurt should they swing them at me. It was clear they were here to control me should I show them any resistance. To ensure that I went where I was supposed to go.
I wanted to cry.
But I didn’t.
The doctors lifted the brain monitor off of my head. The test was over now, and it no longer needed to read my thoughts. It had done its job and ferreted me out. They disconnected me from a number of other wires and monitors and when I was finally free of them all, I was able to push myself up out of the chair into a standing position. The six enforcers quickly surrounded me, ensuring their complete control of me.
There would be no escape for me. My time on Earth had come to an end.
They escorted me out of the testing office and into the cold stark hallway. On the walls were posters depicting each of the sectors. I couldn’t focus on any one of them except for sector two. The one with a picture of a science lab and a researcher wearing a pair of safety goggles examining a glass slide, surrounded by beakers of colorful liquid. She looked happy in her lab coat, thrilled to be giving back to the community in the way she was meant to.
I’d never be able to go there.
I’d already said goodbye to my mother. Even if I hadn’t been labeled as an Aberrant, I’d have been sent to my assigned sector immediately after my test. They wouldn’t tell her where I would be sent to. They never did because they didn’t want parents looking for their children after the designated childrearing time was over. Parents got twenty-one years with their children and not a day more than that. My connection to my mother was permanently severed now. I’d never see her again and she’d never know I’d been sent away.
It was the law.
The sound of the combat boots on the black and white tile floor was loud. They marched me along and I was forced to keep up with their frantic pace. I was led to the end of the hallway, into a simple elevator. The man pressed a button and it started moving down. We went deep underground and when the elevator doors finally opened, it revealed a vastly different world beneath.
There were no happy posters here because there was no need for them. This was a place for those who didn’t fit into the sectors and had no hope of ever joining them. This was a prison for people like me.
They made me exit the elevator and harshly guided me down another hallway. We passed a number of doors with tiny barred windows that were well above my line of sight. I couldn’t look into them, but I had little doubt that other Aberrants were housed inside each one. The enforcers finally stopped in front of one of them. The man who seemed to be in charge stood in front of the eye scanner and I watched as the blue laser scanned over him. The large rust-colored metal door slid open and I could finally see inside.
There was a very simple cot. A stainless-steel toilet with a roll of toilet paper on top of it. There was nothing else. Not even a book.
“Inside. Your transport will arrive in the morning,” the leader said.
There weren’t any other options for me. I couldn’t run because they’d hurt me. I didn’t know if they were allowed to kill me, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. The government took Aberrants seriously and that was becoming clearer to me by the second.
Earth had ceased being my home the moment my result had popped up on the screen. I realized that now. My life was over.
My feet started to move forward of their own accord. I walked into the dim cell and I didn’t even turn when I heard the door slide closed behind me. I made my way over to the cot and sat down.
I felt numb.
I’d been scared of this happening for so long that I didn’t know how to process my feelings. I had no idea what my future held now, what Kryoan would be like. How the alien who purchased me would treat me. Would he hurt me? Would he have tentacles or four weird beady eyeballs? Would he have teeth like a shark?
I laid back and stared at the flickering light in the ceiling. I don’t know how long I glowered at the stupid thing. Eventually I closed my eyes and tried to doze off. I didn’t cover myself with the cheap polyester blanket and I tossed and turned, but I finally fell into a fitful sleep. For a long time, I didn’t even dream.
At least, until the nightmares started.
Torture. Pain. Cruel alien masters that hurt me whenever they were given the opportunity. The strike of a whip at the smallest hint of defiance. The complete loss of my freedom.
I woke up time and time again in a cold sweat. My heart pounded in my chest and my skin felt clammy. I felt shaky and I finally pushed myself back up to a seated position, feeling even more tired than I had when I first laid down. I tried rubbing my arms in order to chase the chill away, but it didn’t help. Nothing seemed to help.
I wondered how much time had passed. My test had been in the evening after dinner and the enforcer had mentioned that they’d come to collect me in the morning. There was no way for me to figure out if it was still nighttime or if the sun had risen yet. Hidden deep underground, I had no way of knowing.
I felt so helpless.
I don’t know how much time had passed when I started to hear things outside my cell. Loud footsteps. Barking orders. Doors opening.
Mine slid open sometime later, revealing the dim hall I’d been led through to my own cell. There was a single enforcer outside waiting for me.
“Come on. It’s your turn to be loaded,” he instructed forcefully. Left with no other options, I obeyed. He led me down the hallway to yet another elevator. Once we were both inside, we started ascending very quickly to ground level. It started to slow once we rose a few more levels, opening into what appeared to be some sort of spaceport, only with a much more intensive level of security. A number of police officers were stationed throughout the oversized room and they were holding rather terrifying looking guns that were most certainly designed to kill. There were a lot of them.
I went quietly with the enforcer escorting me. He led me through the airport, and I kept my eyes down, not even daring to look out of the big windows that revealed a large number of spaceships docked outside. Finally, we arrived at a gate and were ushered through by two burly and very pissed-off-looking soldiers. We crossed the gangway and entered into what appeared to be a cargo hold, only the perimeter was lined with a multitude of cells. On the right side, men were clustered together against the walls. On the left was where the women were being held.
There were at least fifty others, all Aberrants scheduled to be exiled from Earth and sold like cattle to whomever had enough money to purchase us.
I had felt nothing since I had seen my result. I had felt so numb but now something else was starting to brew deep in the pit of my belly. I was beginning to feel angry and I didn’t fight it. This was unfair. It wasn’t my fault that I’d been different. That I hadn’t fit into any of the sectors. That I wasn’t a perfect, predefined mold that served others and the rest of my community. This was wrong. I didn’t deserve this.
The enforcer pushed me forward into a cell with a few other women. They all cowered against the steel wall, their expressions ones of terror and anxiety. I staggered into the cell and felt my fury grow even stronger. I turned around and glared at the man.
“Have a great fucking life, fuckface,” I snapped as I crossed my arms over my chest.
A shocked gasp came from behind me. I didn’t even turn to look.
The enforcer glared back at me for a moment before he spat in my face.
“Good riddance, you goddamn waste of space. I hope Kryoan treats you just as well as you fucking deserve,” he snapped.
I felt his spit drip down my cheek. I didn’t move to wipe it away. I didn’t even flinch as I continued to stare back at him. He started to fidget, clearly unused to someone like me showing even a hint of backbone.
“Fucking cunt,” he muttered as he finally turned away and left, probably to go get another Aberrant to load onto the space vessel.
“Fuck off,” I yelled in return and his spittle dripped down onto the floor. When he was gone, I wiped my cheek with my sleeve before leaning against the bars of the cage.
“That was brave. I wish I had the balls to do that to the asshole who brought me here,” a girl said behind me. I turned toward her. She was pretty, the girl next door type. She had long blonde hair that looked almost perfect, with gentle waves that looked freshly styled. Ice blue eyes regarded me with a cool respect. She was slender and curvy in all the right places.
She would catch a high price, no doubt.
“My name is Mari,” she added. “What’s yours?”
“Nina,” I replied quietly. I gazed at the other women in the cell with me. There were four of us in this particular cage. There were about two dozen women in all.
“Do you know anything about Kryoan?” I asked. I hoped one of the others knew something so that I could at least know what I could expect.
“It’s a harsh planet. Cold. Long winters from what I understand. It’s inhabited by the Atieds. From what I remember, they have a fucked-up justice system based on hierarchy. Those with higher social status are allowed to commit certain crimes while those with low social status are not. The ruling elite are even allowed to commit murder. I haven’t heard any stories about how they treat humans, but I’m pretty certain we’d be considered the lowest class of all,” Mari answered.
“Do you remember what they look like?” I muttered next, feeling my nerves resurface once again.
“They’re pale white with really tough skin to protect them from the cold. Big. Maybe eight feet tall. Two arms and two legs like us. They’re human-like but the similarities pretty much end there,” Mari said.
“Fun times. It’ll be a god damned vacation. Can’t wait,” I replied, and she laughed quietly to herself. I looked outside the cell to watch as a few more men were loaded into the cages, followed by a bunch of enforcers who boarded the ship with us. It looked they were preparing for takeoff as some of them latched down a number of crates and pieces of cargo. I heard a number of different systems begin to engage. Beneath us, the engines roared to life and the floor seemed to tremble under our feet. The door we’d entered through slid closed and I heard several locks bolt it shut. Cold air started blowing from overhead and some of the girls sighed in relief.
“Least they give us air conditioning down here,” Mari murmured, and I smirked in her direction. I liked her. She had spunk.
“Do you know how long it will take us to get there?” one of the other girls asked.
“No idea. Let’s hope they decide to feed us in the meantime though,” I answered. Mari shrugged and shook her head. She didn’t know either.
After a little while longer, I felt the ship begin to lift into the air. Not knowing what it would be like to rocket into space, I sat down on the floor because it felt safer and at least a bit more secure. The others followed suit. Eventually, the others introduced themselves. There was a redhead named Vicky and a chick with purple hair named Monica. We all talked for a while about where we came from. The company was nice. It had been awfully lonely in that cell alone. The four of us were in this together and that was marginally calming at least.
The days passed fairly uneventfully. The enforcers came by twice a day with food and water that they passed through the small slot in the door of the cell. It was never that exciting. Mainly prepackaged military grade meals that must have come cheap because they certainly tasted like it. Chewing on cardboard probably would have been tastier but it wasn’t like I had a choice. It was sustenance, so I ate it just so I could survive.
Mari and I bonded the most in those days. She was a born storyteller and liked to create worlds and tales for us to pass the time. I especially liked her stories that involved pirates who sailed the seas long ago. Big, strong men who didn’t follow any rules and lived the lives they wanted to live without answering to anyone else.
They had their freedom because they’d taken it for themselves. It was inspiring.
One week passed. And then another. Sometimes one of the girls would break down. Other times, it would be one of the men.
I didn’t cry though. I wouldn’t.
I got used to the routine of daily life on the ship, so when the enforcers began to act strangely over the course of several hours, I noticed. The looks on their faces turned from abject boredom to nervous anxiety. Their movements weren’t calm or focused, but uneasy. I watched more closely, and I soon got the feeling that they were frightened. They circled together and talked in soft murmurs, too low for any of us to hear. I leaned closer to the bars and tried to catch some of their words, but it was useless. Mari moved next to me.
She could sense something was up too.
Then the ship rattled hard, almost like we’d hit something, and some of the Aberrants stumbled in their cages. I grabbed the bars to keep myself from falling too.
The enforcers looked scared.
I should have been too.
“We’re under attack,” one of the enforcers muttered anxiously to another.
“Do we know the vessel’s name? Or who dares to attack a ship flying under the protection of the Interstellar Trading Fleet?” another said.
In their panic, the enforcers had started raising their voices. I don’t know if they realized we were listening, but I was hanging onto every word.
“It’s the Black Ranger,” one of them said nervously, and Mari sucked in a breath.
“What?” I asked, turning toward her.
“I know that name. It’s a pirate ship that soars the stars, captained by a man of such renowned cruelty that just his name inspires fear in anyone that travels through space. If anyone catches wind of his last known location, they avoid it entirely. They change their route, no matter the cost,” she whispered.
“What’s his name?” I asked next, feeling a ball of nervousness begin to grow in my belly.
“He goes by Vane. No one knows his first name because no one ever survives to ask,” she replied, dread clearly apparent in her tone.
“Fuck,” I whispered. At least a dozen more enforcers entered the cargo hold and the ship shook hard once again. Then again.
The ship hauling us to Kryoan must be taking fire.
“What do we do, Nina?” Vicky asked, her voice shaky. She was very timid, and she looked up to me. I gritted my teeth and pondered my answer. I wasn’t sure myself, which meant I definitely didn’t know what to tell her. The enforcers moved out in a formation through the room, evenly spaced around us Aberrants, likely in a measure to protect us.
We were expensive cargo. They simply wanted to ensure that the government’s investment in us was repaid. If they lost us, they’d lose the extra income that they gained from our sale to the aliens on Kryoan.
The ship dropped and I felt my stomach fall. I gripped the bars more tightly and slowly lowered myself to the floor. The others followed suit.
“If anything happens, you fight. Got that, Vicky? Don’t let them hurt you. Don’t let them take advantage of you, no matter what,” I growled, and I could feel the women around me begin to build themselves up. I looked around, seeing the tense lines of their lips, the rigidness in their muscles as they mentally prepared themselves for what was to come, and I knew they’d be ready.
But we weren’t. We couldn’t have been ready for what was to come.
The ship rattled hard and I was suddenly afraid that it was going to be torn apart. The enforcers started yelling, their comm devices in their ears flickering as they relayed orders to each other. It didn’t take long for their panic to settle on the rest of us.
They started untying the cargo and pushing it in front of the entryway. The metal door lifted up at an angle when engaged, so it appeared that they were trying to prevent anyone from coming into the cargo hold from the other side. That meant that we were in the process of being boarded or Vane and his men were already on the ship.
I heard men screaming from beyond the cargo hold. I’d never heard that kind of fear before, that kind of pain. There was no doubt in my mind that I had heard the cries of a man in the throes of death. The sound stayed with me for a long time, haunting in the brutal implications of what that meant to the men outside.
More screams. Something wet slammed into the cargo hold door on the other side and I shivered with fear. Mari, Vicky, Monica, and I moved away from the bars and huddled together at the back of the cage. The Aberrants in the other cages did the same.
The sounds of bullets ricocheting off the walls was deafening. The screech of twisting metal and crying men got louder. Footsteps echoed on the metal gangway beyond the cargo hold and I knew it wouldn’t be long now. The screams outside grew quiet and I feared the worst.
“Vane doesn’t leave anyone alive, does he?” Monica whimpered.
“That’s what the stories say,” Mari answered, her tone crestfallen.
I pressed my hand against my ankle. Some time ago, I’d lifted a small dagger from one of the enforcers who hadn’t been paying attention and gotten too close to my cage. It had been dark, and he was doing his usual patrols, so he hadn’t noticed. Everyone else had been asleep and I’d decided to keep that information to myself because it had been safest that way. These girls may look up to me, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t turn me in at the first sign of danger.
Something scraped against the metal door. The squealing sound was so incredibly loud that I had to cover my ears. I stared at the door and in the following moments, I saw something that terrified me. There were claw marks forming on the other side. Whatever was coming for us had claws that were strong enough to mangle solid metal.
Holy fuck. This was bad.
I watched in abject horror as more claw marks scratched the door. I bit my lip when those claws punctured the metal and I stopped breathing as those same hands began to peel the steel apart. Whatever was outside the cargo hold was a monster. That much I was sure of.
The enforcers inside with us abandoned their posts along the walls and instead clustered together in a haphazard fighting formation. They lifted their laser weapons and trained them on the entry door, or at least what was left of it. Jagged holes in the metal quickly transformed into bigger ones until it was large enough for someone to fit through.
A single man pushed forward into the cargo hold. He stood up and I whimpered softly at the sight of him.
He was huge. Maybe seven feet tall and solid fucking muscle. His biceps were huge, at least as big around as my waist, and his thighs were thick like tree trunks. Everything about him was terrifying and massive. It was obvious that he was alien, but his overall form was human-like. He had two arms. Two legs. Two eyes. His skin seemed to glow a dull golden color and was textured with what looked like soft scales. Over his left shoulder and across his chest was a fiery, burning red tattoo. It looked like glowing coals in a fire, radiating with brilliant colors of a blaze that refused to be put out.
There seemed to be no pattern to it. It appeared to be of tribal origin maybe, but the swirls and connected lines didn’t come together in any sort of intentional design. It looked like it continued down his back but as he lifted his head and stared out at the enforcers and then us, I quickly forgot about it once his eyes connected with mine.
For a second, time seemed to stop. His irises were pure gold and his pupils were narrow, reminding me of a reptile. There was a power behind those eyes and at once, it seemed to consume me. I should have been scared, but that wasn’t the only thing I felt. His entire focus was on me for a moment and for some insane reason, I could feel a certain sense of arousal coming to life inside of me.
I pushed it away and looked away, breaking the eye contact between us. Now was not the time for that. Instead, I slipped my hand into my boot and pulled the dagger I’d stolen free. I flipped it in my hand and brought it up to my chest.
“Where’d you get that?” Mari whispered, just low enough not to bring attention to the two of us.
“I took it. Off the fat enforcer over there when he wasn’t paying attention,” I said smugly, and she snorted with amusement.
“You’re resourceful, I’ll give you that,” she replied. I smirked in her direction, even though my body’s reaction to the tattooed alien was making me uneasy. I shouldn’t have reacted like that and I hoped no one else had noticed.
“That’s Vane. I’ve seen his wanted poster in sector five,” Monica said fearfully. Sector five was where the army was housed. I’d never been there, but she’d told us that her parents had raised her there.
The enforcers opened fire but the invader moved with such swiftness that every single shot missed him. Lasers shot through the destroyed metal door and bullets bounced off the walls. The alien moved so quickly that the enforcers couldn’t prepare for what came next. Vane circled around the enforcers with such speed that they didn’t have time to react.
He took his first victim by tearing the man’s arm from his torso. The vicious sound of tearing flesh was unbelievably loud and a number of women beside me squeaked in surprise. The smell of urine became overly pungent and I realized one of the women in the cage beside us had pissed herself with fear.
Vane tore the enforcers apart. He slashed at their bodies with his claws. He swiped at the back of their knees and tore their tendons in two, the sound of the ligaments snapping horrifying and terrible. Blood spattered everywhere and I could feel it on my skin. I could see it sprinkled across my khakis, a stark reminder of the incredible brutality that was happening right in front of my eyes. The enforcers screamed with agony and I watched as one of them tried to run while holding what was left of his arm in his hand.
This was a level of violence that I’d never seen before. I’d seen movies of historical battles, but nothing could have prepared me for this. This wasn’t a battle. This was slaughter.
I understood why Vane was so feared now.
I tore my eyes away from the dying enforcers back to the door of the cargo hold. A number of other men poured in. Some looked like Vane. Others were green. Some were blue or purple. They all had one thing in common though. They all had the same tattoo that Vane did.
The enforcers tried to run but there was nowhere for them to go. There was no exit except a quick agonizing death in the cold void of space. Vane’s crew blocked the entryway and they were spreading out to take care of anyone who wandered too close. A few of them fought with weapons, but they didn’t really need to. They were strong, astoundingly vicious, and not afraid to rip apart their enemies with a blade, or even worse, with simply their bare hands.
Their laughter as they killed the enforcers was the most haunting. I’d never forget that sound as they tore the heads off the men without a care in the world.
It didn’t take long for Vane and his followers to kill every last enforcer. When they finished, they didn’t move the dead bodies and mutilated limbs. They just left them on the metal floor as the blood pooled beneath them. A chilling shiver of terror raced down my spine as I rose to my feet.
If I was going to die today, I was going to do it fighting for my life.