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.
Nothing of beauty exists here - unless you have 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 you get 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.
I wake 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. 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.
Thud, thud, thud.
Suddenly I feel a cold, rough hand on my ankle. Sargon slides his dirty fingers up my calf, over my knee and past my thigh. I continue to lay completely still.
Now his body hovers over mine. I can feel him leaning into me. 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 face.
His hot, wet breath whispers in my ear.
“Malika, Malika. 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 creature.
Stay calm, Malika. Recruitment Day is almost here.
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.
Lash after lash after lash. I cry hot, angry tears but 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 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, Malika. Just hold on. Recruitment Day is coming.
“Malika - wake up! The lottery numbers are being posted in a few hours!!”
Khan’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. Still - what a stark contrast to the reality of things.
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.
“Good morning Khan,” I whisper softly, wincing at the shooting pain in my back from last night’s lashings. Khan notices my discomfort and moves closer to me.
“Malika - your back! What happened to you? Did Sargon do this?”
I nod as a few fresh tears roll down my cheek. Khan leans in and gently wipes them away with his soft and sweet hands, planting a soft kiss in their place.
“I’m so sorry, Mish,” 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. Mish. Malika Ishma is my full name and for whatever reason, Khan decided so long ago when we first met here on Dard, when we were just little kids, that he would call me Mish.
It’s what my father used to call me, before everything changed. But, I’ve never told Khan 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.
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 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 I was captured by a Jaba Hunter. I was five.
I remember that day so vividly.
It was warm and bright and so stupidly beautiful. My parents and little sister, Pikar, and I were vacationing at a magical spot along the coast of a nearby tropical planet. It was the first time I remember seeing the ocean. Smelling the seaweed. Feeling the salt on my skin and the sand between my toes.
I still don’t quite understand how we were 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. I ran off to chase a fluffy, baby koala I had noticed in the near distance. And at that exact moment, a friend of my parents appeared and distracted them from keeping their eyes on me. Before I knew it, I was screaming from the inside of a pitch black bag. Suffocated by my fear. That is the last time I ever saw my family. That is the last time I knew what it felt like to be truly free.
“You seem lost inside your head today Mish”, Khan prodded.
We have been walking for almost an hour now. I’m so tired. And annoyed. Where is he taking me?
“I think I’m just a little tired from last night. And nervous about the lottery,” I respond.
Khan grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze. This both comforts and repels me. But I let my hand rest in his. I wish I loved Khan as much as he loves me. But since the kidnapping, I’ve never really been able to trust anyone.
I mean, I trust Khan in that he is my only real friend here on Dard. But I just can’t seem to love him in the way that he loves me. The only thing that truly keeps me going is the hope of leaving Dard as a Galactic Cadet and reuniting with my family - and Khan doesn’t fit into that plan.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Khan whispers in my ear.
I close my eyes and, still holding onto Khan’s hand, let him lead me.
He stops. I stand still, eyes closed. “Okay, open,” he says.
I open my eyes and gasp. This is truly the most beautiful thing - the only beautiful thing - I’ve ever seen on Dard. He must have stolen (or bought?) a holographer. But not just any holographer - Detrius Diamond’s holographer! But how?! “Oh Khan! This is incredible!” I cry.
I run around like a fool, giddy with delight. I can’t help it - it’s honestly like I’ve stepped inside of my own dream and come alive at just the right moment.
We are no longer slaves on the bleak and industrial slave planet of Dard. We 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 I have 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.
I notice 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!
Khan and I move toward the picnic and sit down.
“Khan, 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,” I exclaim.
“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,” I shoot back.
“That’s not true. The look on your face is totally worth it,” he says softly. “Priceless.” He moves toward me slowly. My heart thumps heavily in my ears. I lose sense of space and time. He grabs my face in his hands and puts his soft, sweet, moist lips on mine. I blush.
We both pull away from each other for a second and look into each other’s eyes.
I let out a small, nervous laugh. “Let’s feast!” I say.
“Indeed, let’s feast,” Khan replies, grinning toothily at me, as he pours us each a glass of brown sugar bubbly beer.
Khan and I 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.
My palms drip with sweat, and the closer we get to the list, the more I feel like I can’t breathe.
This is my only chance to leave Dard and find my 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 all of us here on Planet Dard. I guess illegal slavery just isn’t high enough on the list. Sometimes I cringe at how effed up everything is.)
Anyway - it is an absolute honor to be part of the Galactic Squad, especially for a slave like me.