As she was lying half asleep on the rotten wooden board that was called her bed, she couldn’t help but think about how being a slave on planet Dard was like existing in the jail cell from Hell.
Endless. Disgusting. Tortuous.
The worms that poked out of her “bed” from time to time used to bother her so much, but now they were almost like little friends. Some of the only creatures, aside from a few of the other slaves, that even existed on Dard and could also (sort of) be trusted.
Everything here was severe and gray - the cement floors and walls and ceilings, the metal-barred windows and doors, the electric, barbed-wire fences.
Nothing of beauty existed here - unless one had the means to create an illusion of it.
There were no flowers or trees or pretty animals. No lakes or rivers. No green grass.
The food was stale and colorless. That is, if one got to eat.
Everything smelled like gunpowder.
It was always cold.
The only sounds were those of machinery grinding and voices screaming in pain.
No music. No laughter.
She would be endlessly grateful if she didn’t live here.
It was like a nightmare she couldn’t seem to wake up from and that she wasn’t even sure how she had gotten into in the first place.
She woke to the sound of Sargon’s whip cracking harshly against the cement floor.
Slowly, the thud of his big, black boots hit the ground, one step at a time. She hoped he would pass her tonight. It was freezing more than usual. She was afraid to receive a lashing so close to Recruitment Day.
Thud, thud, thud.
Someone a few beds down from her let out a horrendously loud scream. She couldn’t tell who it was. Her body remained frozen. If Sargon sensed that she was awake, he would come after her for sure.
Thud, thud, thud.
Suddenly she felt a cold, rough hand on her ankle. Sargon slid his dirty fingers up her calf, over her knee and past her thigh. She continued to lay completely still.
Now his body was hovering over hers. She could feel him leaning into her. His chest heaved. Her heart pounded. She wished she could chop off his hands. She hated when he touched her. She used every ounce of her patience to remain calm. All she wanted to do was turn around and stab his face.
His hot, wet breath whispered in her ear.
“Karina, Karina. How sweet you look when you’re dreaming. Does daddy’s touch do nothing to stir you from your sleep tonight?”
Her stomach churned. She couldn’t stop thinking about how much she wanted to kill this disgusting creature.
She reminded herself to stay calm. Recruitment Day was almost here.
But even her stillness didn’t work this time. The first lash came crashing down on her back so hard that she could feel the fresh, wet blood trickling down from her butt to her kneecap.
Lash after lash after lash. She cried hot, angry tears but allowed no sound to escape from her body. Sargon didn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing just how much pain he was actually inflicting upon her.
Once he got bored of the fact that she was clearly not reacting to his provocations, Sargon gave her a swift kick in the gut and moved onto his next victim. She reeled in pain. This sucks so much, she thought.
Less than two days, Karina, she whispered to herself. Just hold on.
Recruitment Day was coming.
“Karina - wake up! The lottery numbers are being posted in a few hours!!”
Harry’s voice rang loud and excited in her ears.
The morning was bright and cool. The sun was actually shining today.
And unless she was going totally crazy, she felt like she could hear a few birds chirping.
They must have been illusions. Still - it was a stark contrast to the reality of things.
She suspected it was because today, everyone found out who got to compete in Recruitment Day tomorrow.
Some people’s lives were about to change…forever. For better and for worse.
“Good morning Harry,” she whispered softly, wincing at the shooting pain in her back from last night’s lashings. Harry noticed her discomfort and moved closer to her.
“Karina - your back! What happened to you? Did Sargon do this?”
She nodded as a few fresh tears rolled down her cheek. Harry leaned in and gently wiped them away with his soft and sweet hands, planting a soft kiss in their place.
“I’m so sorry, Kishmish,” he said to her, looking at her with those piercing green eyes of his that she never seemed to be able to shake.
She both hated and loved that he called her this. Kishmish. Karina Ishma was her full name and for whatever reason, Harry decided so long ago when they had first met here on Dard, when they had been just little kids, that he would call her Kishmish.
It was what her father used to call her, before everything changed. But, she had never told Harry this.
He jumped up and with a burst of energy almost sang, “I’ll bring you some stuff to clean up and then get dressed. I want to show you something before the lottery numbers are posted. We have just enough time.”
“Sure, sounds great,” she managed, with a weak smile.
Slavery on planet Dard hadn’t always been Karina’s life.
In fact, she was born into a relatively wealthy business family on the capital planet of Shinar. Her life was safe and sweet. She was lucky.
But that was before the Great War, when Jaba Hunters trolled the planet for children, capturing them and sending them to slave planets like Dard to manufacture weapons and food and clothing for soldiers.
Now that the war was over, and had been over for almost five years, slave planets like Dard still existed, illegally, but authorities looked the other way as long as they were generously rewarded.
Brutes like Sargon who ruled planets like Dard got rich off of cheap labor and the authorities got richer off of black money. Everyone won.
That was, of course, except the slaves.
It had been 10 years since she was captured by a Jaba Hunter. She was five.
And she remembered that day so vividly.
It was warm and bright and so stupidly beautiful. Her parents and little sister, Pikar, and her were vacationing at a magical spot along the coast of a nearby tropical planet. It was the first time she remembered seeing the ocean. Smelling the seaweed. Feeling the salt on her skin and the sand between her toes.
She still didn’t quite understand how her family was able to take a vacation like that during what was, arguably, the absolute most turbulent period of the Great War.
It all happened so quickly. She ran off to chase a fluffy, baby koala she had noticed in the near distance. And at that exact moment, a friend of her parents appeared and distracted them from keeping their eyes on her. Before she knew it, she was screaming from the inside of a pitch black bag. Suffocated by her fear. That was the last time she ever saw her family. That was the last time she knew what it felt like to be truly free.
“You seem lost inside your head today Kishy”, Harry prodded.
They had been walking for almost an hour now. Karina was so tired. And annoyed. Where was he taking her?
“I think I’m just a little tired from last night. And nervous about the lottery,” she responded.
Harry grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. This both comforted and repelled her. But she let her hand rest in his. She wished she could love Harry as much as he loved her. But since the kidnapping, she had never really been able to trust anyone.
She trusted Harry in that he was her only real friend here on Dard. But she just wasn’t able to love him in the way that he loved her. The only thing that truly kept her going was the hope of leaving Dard as a Galactic Cadet and reuniting with her family - and Harry was unable to fit into that plan.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Harry whispered in her ear.
She closed her eyes and, still holding onto Harry’s hand, let him lead her.
He stopped. She stood still, eyes closed. “Okay, open,” he said.
She opened her eyes and gasped. This was truly the most beautiful thing - the only beautiful thing - she had ever seen on Dard. He must have stolen (or bought?) a holographer. But not just any holographer - Detrius Diamond’s holographer! But how?!
“Oh Harry! This is incredible!” she cried.
She ran around like a fool, giddy with delight. She couldn’t help it - it was honestly like she had stepped inside of her own dream and had come alive at just the right moment.
They were no longer slaves on the bleak and industrial slave planet of Dard. They were king and queen of a magical fairy forest wonderland. Replete with gushing waterfalls, an emerald-colored lake and flowers in shades of pink and yellow and purple she had never before seen.
The gigantic broccoli-like trees blushed with delight. The deer shimmered like powdered gold.
The hummingbirds looked like flying rubies flitting around against an elegant baby-blue sky.
She noticed a lush, red velvet blanket spread out in the middle of the scene, covered with every type of delicious food imaginable: dark chocolate goji berries, creamy herbed goat cheese, whole wheat poppy seed bread - even brown sugar bubbly beer!
She and Harry moved toward the picnic and sat down.
“Harry, I don’t understand how you managed to do all of this. There is no way you could have gotten everything without seriously risking your life. This is crazy,” she exclaimed.
“It’s all worth it if it helps you during Recruitment Day,” he replied. “You need to eat a hearty meal and nourish yourself before the battle.”
“But we don’t even know if I made it into the lottery! What if I don’t even get a ticket. Then this will all have been for nothing,” she shot back.
“That’s not true. The look on your face is totally worth it,” he said softly. “Priceless.”
He moved toward her slowly. Her heart thumped heavily in her ears. She lost sense of space and time. He grabbed her face in his hands and put his soft, sweet, moist lips on hers. She blushed.
They both pulled away from each other for a second and looked into each other’s eyes.
She let out a small, nervous laugh. “Let’s feast!” she said.
“Indeed, let’s feast,” Harry replied, grinning toothily at her, as he poured each of them a glass of brown sugar bubbly beer.
She and Harry stood in line.
The air was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. The winners of the lottery for Recruitment Day had been posted.
It was time to find out who got a chance to try out for the Galactic Squad.
Karina’s palms dripped with sweat, and the closer they got to the list, the more she felt like she couldn’t breathe.
This was her only chance to leave Dard and find her family.
There was a galaxy-wide rule in the Galaxy of Seratona: when you turned fifteen, your name was placed in a pool from which the Lords of Shinar, the rulers of the wealthiest and most powerful planet in the galaxy, held a galaxy-wide search for the best and the brightest fifteen year olds to join the Galactic Squad. Galactic Fighters were trained in warfare, and they traveled the Galaxy to keep it safe from space invaders and terrorists.
Too bad they couldn’t save everyone on Planet Dard. Illegal slavery just wasn’t high enough on the list.
Sometimes Karina cringed at how effed up everything was.
Anyway - it was an absolute honor to be part of the Galactic Squad, especially for a slave like her.