As I lie half asleep on the rotting wooden board that is called my bed, I 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 my “bed” from time to time used to bother me 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 you see here is severe and gray - the cement floors and walls and ceilings, the metal-barred windows and doors, the electric, barbed-wire fences that trap us all in from every angle and that can be, if you try hard enough, fatal to the touch.
Nothing of beauty exists here - unless you somehow acquire the means to create an illusion of it. But even that is fleeting. On Dard, nothing good ever lasts.
There are no flowers or trees or pretty animals. No lakes or rivers. No green grass. Nothing. At least nothing that is visible to us slaves.
The food is tasteless and colorless. It’s this off-white goo, similar to the consistency of pancake batter (but without any of the yummy smells or flavoring), that gives us just enough sustenance to survive. Sometimes I feel nauseous just thinking about it. But, it’s not so vile that it can’t be consumed, even though there is absolutely nothing inherently pleasurable about it.
And that’s only if you even get to eat in the first place.
Everything smells like gunpowder. Sometimes, I’ll take a deep breath in, and it tastes like little metal flakes have coated my tongue and throat. It burns.
It’s always cold and misty. The sun rarely ever shines.
The only sounds are those of machinery grinding and voices either yelling abuses at one of us or of someone screaming in pain.
It is rare to see someone smile. There is never any reason to do so. The only laughter comes from the guards, or Sargon - their master.
And there is no music allowed. None.
Sometimes the guards will have little headphones in their ears, and every time I see them, I have a deep desire to know what they are listening to at that very moment.
Music used to be one of my favorite things about being alive. I guess it still is, even if I don’t have any access to it. It is one of the few things that gives me the strength to get up each day and keep going.
Though I can only re-play the beats and words of one entire song in my head from start to finish, it’s enough, because it was my mom’s favorite song. She used to sing it to me and my sister Pikar all the time. I still remember how Pikar, only three years older than me, had an uncanny ability to sing the words with perfect pitch, even at such a young age.
Humdi Lila Allah Jehova
Yahweh Dios Ma’ad Jah
I start to hum the tune silently inside my head.
My mom always told us that this song was about the Struggle. She said that the beauty of the song was about how whether or not we realize it, the Struggle affects us all, not just the people who created the song and that type of music in general, or who they wrote it about, but us all.
I’ve always wondered what she really meant by that. How could Sargon and his cronies be suffering like me? And people who don’t even live on Dard in the first place? What could they possibly know about suffering?
As I sing the words silently inside my head and imagine that day on the beach with my family, I begin to feel calm. I’m just about to fall asleep when suddenly my body contracts, and I jolt awake 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. I hold my breath. Please pass me tonight. It’s freezing more than usual. I can’t receive a lashing so close to Recruitment Day.
Thud, thud, thud.
Someone a few beds down from me lets out a horrendously loud scream. I can’t tell who it is. My body remains frozen. If Sargon senses that I’m awake, he will come after me for sure.
“If you’re caught with these pills again,” Sargon warns, “you’re finished.”
He continues to lacerate her. The sound of her screams sends chills up and down my spine.
It must be one of the girls who works in the textile factory. They always seem to have so much energy - one of the rare cases in which I have actually seen someone other than the guards or Sargon flash a smile. But their eyes always seem so hollow. Like something’s missing.
They are always popping these small round pills. Mostly the pills are white, but sometimes they are yellow or red or blue or green - always in shades of pastel. They remind me of little bits of Easter eggs, the size of a drop of rain. And they always have different symbols carved into them - butterflies, smiling faces, trees, hearts. Like little emoji icons.
I don’t know what those girls have to save up and who they barter with in order to get access to them. My guess is that they cut a deal with a few of the guards, which is always a bit of a shady thing to do.
Thud, thud, thud.
The sound of Sargon’s boots is coming toward me. I lie as still as possible, eyes shut, even though I can now feel a tiny worm crawling on my arm. All I want to do is shove it off, but I can’t. I can’t risk drawing any attention to myself.
Suddenly I feel a cold, rough hand on my ankle. Sargon - a behemoth of a creature - slides his dirty, scaly fingers up my calf, over my knee and past my thigh. I continue to lay completely still, though I can imagine his narrow, yellow eyes peering at me with delight.
Now his body hovers over mine. I can feel him leaning into me. The smell of him makes me sick. His chest heaves. My heart pounds. I wish I could chop off his hands. I hate when he touches me. I use every ounce of my patience to remain calm. All I want to do is turn around and stab his fat, lizard face.
His hot, wet, rotten breath whispers in my ear. I push down my own vomit.
“Karina, Karina. How sweet you look when you’re dreaming. Does daddy’s touch do nothing to stir you from your sleep tonight?”
My stomach churns. I can’t stop thinking about how much I want to kill this disgusting beast.
Stay calm, Karina. Recruitment Day is almost here.
“And look here,” Sargon continues, pointing to the worm wiggling around on my arm. “Two yummy treats at once. What a pleasant surprise.”
He bends down and licks the worm off of my arm, inching his lips slowly toward my face. I keep my eyes shut tight and do not budge even a centimeter. I might as well be dead.
But even my stillness doesn’t work this time. The first lash comes crashing down on my back so hard that I can feel the fresh, wet blood trickling down from my butt to my kneecap.
“Daddy doesn’t like it when he wants to play, and you don’t,” Sargon commands.
Lash after lash after lash. Hot, angry tears escape my closed eyes. I allow no sound to escape from my body. Sargon doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing just how much pain he’s actually inflicting upon me.
Once he gets bored of the fact that I am clearly not reacting to any of his provocations, Sargon gives me a swift kick in the gut and moves onto his next victim. I reel in pain. This sucks so much.
Less than two days, Karina. Just hold on. Recruitment Day is coming.
“Karina - wake up! The lottery numbers are being posted in a few hours!!”
Max’s voice rings loud and excited in my ears.
The morning is bright and cool. The sun is actually shining today. And unless I’m going totally crazy, I feel like I can hear a few birds chirping.
They must be illusions. I suspect it’s because today, we find out who gets to compete in Recruitment Day tomorrow. Some people’s lives are about to change…forever. For better and for worse.
Still, what a stark contrast to the reality of things to be able to perceive a few pleasantries through my senses. I have to admit it’s nice to experience these types of things - the sight of the sun, the sound of birds singing - but I can’t get too attached to any of it, because it’s surely not going to be around for long. And as soon as it’s gone, my cravings for it all will just make me so unhappy. This has happened to me once before, and it felt unbearable.
“Morning, M,” I whisper softly, wincing at the shooting pain in my back from last night’s lashings. Max notices my discomfort and moves closer to me.
“Karina - your back! What happened to you? Did Sargon do this?”
I nod as a few fresh tears roll down my cheek. Max 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 me, looking at me with those piercing green eyes of his that I never seem to be able to shake.
I both hate and love that he calls me this. Kishmish. Karina Ishma is my full name and for whatever reason, Max decided so long ago when we first met here on Dard, when we were just little kids, that he would call me Kishmish.
It’s what my father used to call me, before everything changed. But, I’ve never told Max 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,” I manage, with a weak smile.
As I slide out of bed and start to get ready to spend the day with Max, I think about the fact that slavery on planet Dard hasn’t always been my life.
In fact, I was born into a relatively wealthy business family on the capital planet of Shinar. My life was safe and sweet. I 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 nine 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 given to them for keeping quiet. Our cheap labor allows people to continue to pay low prices for the endless amounts of goods and services that they can’t seem to live without. Everyone wins.
That is, of course, except the slaves.
It’s been 10 years since I was captured by a Jaba Hunter. I was six. The war ended so soon after I landed here. I vaguely remember hearing whisperings that it was all over. But in many ways, my misery had just begun.