As she lies half asleep on the rotten wooden board that is called her bed, she can’t help but think about how being a slave on planet Dard is like existing in the jail cell from Hell.
Endless. Disgusting. Tortuous.
The worms that poke out of her “bed” from time to time used to bother her so much, but now they are almost like little friends. Some of the only creatures, aside from a few of the other slaves, that even exist on Dard and can also (sort of) be trusted.
Everything she sees here is severe and gray - the cement floors and walls and ceilings, the metal-barred windows and doors, the electric, barbed-wire fences.
Nothing of beauty exists here - unless one has the means to create an illusion of it.
There are no flowers or trees or pretty animals. No lakes or rivers. No green grass.
The food is stale and colorless. That is, if one gets to eat.
Everything smells like gunpowder.
It’s always cold.
The only sounds are those of machinery grinding and voices screaming in pain.
No music. No laughter.
Be thankful you don’t live here.
It is like a nightmare you can’t seem to wake up from and that you aren’t even sure how you got into in the first place.
She wakes to the sound of Sargon’s whip cracking harshly against the cement floor.
Slowly, the thud of his big, black boots hits the ground, one step at a time. She hopes he passes her tonight. It’s freezing more than usual. She can’t receive a lashing so close to Recruitment Day.
Thud, thud, thud.
Someone a few beds down from her lets out a horrendously loud scream. She can’t tell who it is. Her body remains frozen. If Sargon senses that she’s awake, he will come after her for sure.
Thud, thud, thud.
Suddenly she feels a cold, rough hand on her ankle. Sargon slides his dirty fingers up her calf, over her knee and past her thigh. She continues to lay completely still.
Now his body hovers over hers. She can feel him leaning into her. His chest heaves. Her heart pounds. She wishes she could chop off his hands. She hates when he touches her. She uses every ounce of her patience to remain calm. All she wants to do is turn around and stab his face.
His hot, wet breath whispers 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 churns. She can’t stop thinking about how much she wants to kill this disgusting creature.
She reminds herself to stay calm. Recruitment Day is almost here.
But even her stillness doesn’t work this time. The first lash comes crashing down on her back so hard that she can feel the fresh, wet blood trickling down from her butt to her kneecap.
Lash after lash after lash. She cries hot, angry tears but allows no sound to escape from her body. Sargon doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing just how much pain he’s actually inflicting upon her.
Once he gets bored of the fact that she is clearly not reacting to his provocations, Sargon gives her a swift kick in the gut and moves onto his next victim. She reels in pain. This sucks so much, she thinks.
Less than two days, Karina, she whispers to herself. Just hold on.
Recruitment Day is coming.
“Karina - wake up! The lottery numbers are being posted in a few hours!!”
Harry’s voice rings loud and excited in her ears.
The morning is bright and cool. The sun is actually shining today.
And unless she’s going totally crazy, she feels like she can hear a few birds chirping.
They must be illusions. Still - what a stark contrast to the reality of things.
She suspects it’s because today, everyone finds out who gets to compete in Recruitment Day tomorrow.
Some people’s lives are about to change…forever. For better and for worse.
“Good morning Harry,” she whispers softly, wincing at the shooting pain in her back from last night’s lashings. Harry notices her discomfort and moves closer to her.
“Karina - your back! What happened to you? Did Sargon do this?”
She nods as a few fresh tears roll down her cheek. Harry leans in and gently wipes them away with his soft and sweet hands, planting a soft kiss in their place.
“I’m so sorry, Kishmish,” he says to her, looking at her with those piercing green eyes of his that she never seems to be able to shake.
She both hates and loves that he calls her this. Kishmish. Karina Ishma is her full name and for whatever reason, Harry decided so long ago when they first met here on Dard, when they were just little kids, that he would call her Kishmish.
It’s what her father used to call her, before everything changed. But, she’s never told Harry this.
He jumps up and with a burst of energy almost sings, “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 manages, with a weak smile.
Slavery on planet Dard hasn’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 is over, and has been over for almost five years, slave planets like Dard still exist, illegally, but authorities look the other way as long as they are generously rewarded.
Brutes like Sargon who rule planets like Dard get rich off of cheap labor and the authorities get richer off of black money. Everyone wins.
That is, of course, except the slaves.
It’s been 10 years since she was captured by a Jaba Hunter. She was five.
And she remembers 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 remembers seeing the ocean. Smelling the seaweed. Feeling the salt on her skin and the sand between her toes.
She still doesn’t quite understand how her family was able to take a vacation like this 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 is the last time she ever saw her family. That is the last time she knew what it felt like to be truly free.
“You seem lost inside your head today Kishy”, Harry prods.
They have been walking for almost an hour now. Karina is so tired. And annoyed. Where is he taking her?
“I think I’m just a little tired from last night. And nervous about the lottery,” she responds.
Harry grabs her hand and gives it a squeeze. This both comforts and repels her. But she lets her hand rest in his. She wishes she could love Harry as much as he loves her. But since the kidnapping, she’s never really been able to trust anyone.
She trusts Harry in that he is her only real friend here on Dard. But she just can’t seem to love him in the way that he loves her. The only thing that truly keeps her going is the hope of leaving Dard as a Galactic Cadet and reuniting with her family - and Harry doesn’t fit into that plan.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Harry whispers in her ear.
She closes her eyes and, still holding onto Harry’s hand, lets him lead her.
He stops. She stands still, eyes closed. “Okay, open,” he says.
She opens her eyes and gasps. This is truly the most beautiful thing - the only beautiful thing - she’s 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 cries.
She runs around like a fool, giddy with delight. She can’t help it - it’s honestly like she’s stepped inside of her own dream and come alive at just the right moment.
They are no longer slaves on the bleak and industrial slave planet of Dard. They are 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 has never before seen.
The gigantic broccoli-like trees blush with delight. The deer shimmer like powdered gold.
The hummingbirds look like flying rubies flitting around against an elegant baby-blue sky.
She notices 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 move toward the picnic and sit 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 exclaims.
“It’s all worth it if it helps you during Recruitment Day,” he replies. “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 shoots back.
“That’s not true. The look on your face is totally worth it,” he says softly. “Priceless.”
He moves toward her slowly. Her heart thumps heavily in her ears. She loses sense of space and time. He grabs her face in his hands and puts his soft, sweet, moist lips on hers. She blushes.
They both pull away from each other for a second and look into each other’s eyes.
She lets out a small, nervous laugh. “Let’s feast!” she says.
“Indeed, let’s feast,” Harry replies, grinning toothily at her, as he pours each of them a glass of brown sugar bubbly beer.
She and Harry stand in line.
The air is buzzing with excitement and anticipation. The winners of the lottery for Recruitment Day have been posted.
It’s time to find out who gets a chance to try out for the Galactic Squad.
Karina’s palms drip with sweat, and the closer they get to the list, the more she feels like she can’t breathe.
This is her only chance to leave Dard and find her family.
There’s a galaxy-wide rule in the Galaxy of Seratona: when you turn fifteen, your name gets placed in a pool from which the Lords of Shinar, the rulers of the wealthiest and most powerful planet in the galaxy, hold a galaxy-wide search for the best and the brightest fifteen year olds to join the Galactic Squad. Galactic Fighters are trained in warfare, and they travel the Galaxy to keep it safe from space invaders and terrorists.
Too bad they can’t save everyone on Planet Dard. Illegal slavery just isn’t high enough on the list.
Sometimes Karina cringes at how effed up everything is.
Anyway - it is an absolute honor to be part of the Galactic Squad, especially for a slave like her.