grav·i·ty - the force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth, or toward any other physical body having mass.
I saw the smile in her profile as I continued to brush my contraband doll's hair. I didn't understand her smile at the time, but I liked it. Mommy didn't smile much anymore.
"Because the people who decide things now? They get to choose and pick whether people like us get to eat foods like that now. Just like they get to decide where Mommy works and where we live."
My brush stopped mid-stroke and I looked at her, feeling the weight of those words, but not understanding them for what they were. Not yet anyway. "People like us?"
"People who live in the stacks. People who—" She smiled. "People who work honestly for a living and try to pay their taxes the good old-fashioned way."
"I thought honesty was a good thing?"
She chuckled a little and sliced through the bread on the counter carefully. She did everything with care. She put my plate on the table and ticked her head. "Leave Lolly and come sit." I sighed and did as she asked, setting my doll Lolly on the one chair we had carefully before moving across the floor quietly so as not to disturb the tenants below us.
Where we lived in the stacks was anything if not an inconvenience, but it was home. We lived in a shipping crate, stacked on top of another shipping, on top of another crate. I think you get my drift when I say the 'stacks'. And our neighbors to our walls were the same—stacked as far as I could see.
"Let's give thanks," she said softly and I bowed my head to pray, thanking someone she called 'Father' that I had never met for the food we were given that she had provided by working in the mines. I never really understood why she did it or who this guy was. She said a long time ago, when the exodus that brought us to this planet from Earth happened, that our father God had protected us and gotten us here safely, but as far as I had seen, all my life had been misery, broken contraband dolls, and a barely-there slice of bread on my plate with three freeze-dried green beans on my plate next to it for every meal.
Count them. Three.
"Amen," she said as she finished and I hadn't even heard what she'd muttered to him in between.
I sighed as I picked up my bread and tour off a piece. "Will we ever have anything but bread and dry vegetables?"
"Soph," she said gently, "this life is hard on you, I know, and I'm so very sorry about that. I wish your father was here." She smiled like she always did, but her tears came all the same. "But he's not. It's only us. It's always us, it'll always be us. And...sometimes life will give you obstacles, things to make you strong. And you know what?"
My eight-year old mind didn't know at the time what was coming, just that it was something I should pay attention to, grab onto. I shook my head.
"You are going to be so strong. And brave, valiant, mighty. But you'll also be loving, gentle, an amazing woman who loves with her whole self and heart."
I stared, blushing, not knowing why this mattered over bread and green beans. She laughed. "Eat, Sophelia. And I haven't forgotten."
I knew what she meant, but said, "Forgotten what?"
She smirked, her brow lifting on one side, her golden hair falling to one side over her eye. "Someone's birthday tomorrow."
I tried to stop my smile, but failed. "How do you remember so well when everyday's the same, repeated over and over?" My smile faded. "When you have so much else to worry about and hardly ever sleep?"
"How could I forget the best day of my life?"
I didn't smile back. "But you got more taxes that day—"
"I got you that day and that's all that matters. Eat so we can read more about Peter Pan and Wendy. And find out if the Lost Boys have taken to her or not."
My back straightened. She was always so tired and fell asleep. We hardly ever got to read anymore. "Really?"
"Really," she said and smiled.
I scarfed my bread and the chewy beans. I wiped off our plates with the dish towel and set them in the cabinet. Mom went to the water distillery on the wall next to the door and attached the lidded spout over the top to seal it. She held our jug with shaky hands.
She seemed to be praying again. I paused to watch her, but before I could get worried she opened the spout and let the canister fill with our daily ration of water for our pod and family of two. It was half of what it usually was. Water for...one. She sighed before turning to me.
"Here. You first." She flipped the lid on the drinking jug up, but left her thumb covering the hole so the liquid couldn't escape. There was gravity in the pod and buildings, but it didn't apply to liquids. Mom used to tell me stories about all the misconceptions from when our people first got here over seven hundred years ago. People believed they would boil or burst without something protecting them and their skin, people believed their tears would float off their faces, people thought the sun was yellow.
"Why did they give us so little?"
Even my child heart knew something wasn't right.
"Oh," she brushed it off, "I had some at the factory today. They must have counted that as my ration."
"Mom," I hedged.
"Here, take it." She pushed it toward me, keeping her thumb over it tightly. "Just leave me a couple sips. I'll be fine."
We only got one ration of water a day to drink. We didn't bathe with it or wash our dishes or clothes with it like I heard the Elitists were prone to do. Though that seemed like an epic waste of water to me. I took it from her and immediately sucked it to my lips, letting the warm water suck down my throat and quench me for a moment before I closed the lid, taking that deep breath that dried my throat out once more, taking with it all the calm those few short sips had provided me.
She smiled as she downed the last little bit and then closed it tight, replacing our canister to the hook next to the water distillery spout.
"Ready for Hook?"
"Go brush your teeth and then we will."
I wanted to grumble, but knew better. "Yes, ma'am."
I went to the sink where I had cleaned our dishes and lifted the small flap that held my toothbrush and paste. I squirted it on the brush, letting it touch the bristles as I went, and did a quick, thorough run over all my teeth and tongue. If you lasted for more than a minute, it began to burn your gums. There were no dentist here. Well—not for people in the stacks, so our paste was full of all the things needed to keep our teeth from rotting from our heads, but it didn't feel good to do so. Especially with no water to wash it away when you were done.
I took the sleeve of my shirt and rubbed as much of it off my gums and tongue as I could and then turned. I saw it on her face. "Please. No bath."
Lye powder soap was less fun than straight-up baking soda toothpaste when there was no way to remove it from your skin.
She smiled. "All right. But you scrub extra hard tomorrow night."
"Deal," I said enthusiastically and landed hard on my knees, apologizing silently to the tenants below us as I tugged my hideaway bed out. I sat and waited for her to pull the book from its hiding place. Books were rare. There hadn't been that many brought over from Earth and to have one in the stacks was unheard of. The Elitists apparently paid a pretty silver for books or anything else they could find from the old world.
But Mom couldn't get rid of this. And neither could I. This was Dad's book. He'd won it in some weird card game for my mother's birthday and it was the only thing we had that was left of him and that was of value. He died six months later in an accident, but it was like he had been trying to take care of us with this book or something. He knew we'd need it.
But he had to know Mom would never sell it.
I watched her go to our secret hiding place, grab the book, and we sat down to read until I fell asleep.
The next night when Mom came home from work, I knew something was different. She was smiling deviously. And Mom never smiled deviously.
"What is going on?" I couldn't help but ask.
"You'll see. Sit."
I moved to grab Lolly, but she stopped me.
"No. No more Lolly."
I stilled. "What?"
Lolly was my one and only friend. I saw no one, ever. I had no friends there. I only left this pod once a week to go to school. And during that time we were not allowed to speak or play games. The rest of the time, I sat there and waited for Mother to come home, playing with Lolly, biding my time, finding mindless, quiet things to do. So what did she mean No more Lolly?
"Happy birthday, Soph," she told me, her face lighting before she had even revealed what was behind her back. She had a new doll in her hands, the one I saw in the sky in the 3D advertisements on the way to school every week. As soon as I touched her hand, a small prick in my finger jolted me. I snatched my hand back, but the doll giggled and apologized before saying my name.
"She knows my name," I said, deadpan.
Mom laughed. "She knows lots of things now that she had your DNA. She's the Around Landu Edition. She's practically a tutor. I want you to be able to know everything you want to know." She leaned down on her haunches and looked at my face closely and cupped my cheek. "The key to surviving on this planet is to learn, and not just learning what they want you to know." She touched my temple. "Our minds are human and God made our minds so big we can hold much information, but the Landu Militia want us to curb ourselves, want us to think we're dumb and only worth the weight of the silver in our pockets. Don't ever think that, Sophelia. Do you hear me?" She didn't give me a chance to answer. "You are worth more than what is in your pockets. You're worth what's in your mind and what's in your heart."
I was breathing heavy, understanding smacking into me. "Mom, how did you afford this?"
"Don't you worry about that. You are more important to me than anything," she said fiercely, a tear falling from her chin that I hadn't noticed until then. My heart started to pound heavily. "It's your birthday and I wanted to make sure that you knew, that you didn't just listen to my words, that you saw my actions and understood what I would do for your freedom, for your future, for everyone's. You're so young, I know you don't know, but I need you to understand, baby. This isn't the end; this is just the beginning."
My heart hurt it pounded so hard...and then I realized it wasn't my heart I heard pounding. It was footsteps.
She looked back at the door and then at me. "I thought I had at least a day. I didn't think they'd find out so soon," she said and looked infinitely sad. "I hope you'll understand one day, Sophelia. I did this for you. For us. I love you more than I love gravity, oxygen, bread, or water. I love you more than I love anything this world could offer me."
The footsteps on the ladder rungs up to our pod got louder. "Mom." My voice quivered.
"We have to hide your doll. They know we have contraband. It won't matter. Leave Lolly there, but we'll put this one with Daddy's book. She'll be safe with Daddy's book, okay?"
So she hadn't sold Daddy's book to get my doll. Then how? I watched as she turned it off, stuffed it next to his book, and then stood next to me. She held my hand so tightly and murmured things to me.
"Remember that life gives us things to make us stronger, baby. You be so strong. Mom will be, too. You remember all the things I told you. You remember what Mommy told you about the Militia—how they aren't here to help us when they say they are. Do as you're told until they take you away from here. And then when you see Militia...you run. Don't let them break you, baby. Mommy will be with you always. I love you so much."
I repeated things back to her because I knew she wanted me to, but I was so scared I could hardly do anything else. When they finally knocked on our door, I squeaked.
"Don't cry, baby," she whispered and I looked up at her. "This is the way it has to be. To save you and me and everyone else. It'll be okay. One day, you'll understand. I promise you. Be strong—"
The door opened with a loud squealing clang of metal on metal before five Militia came in. One grabbed my mother by her hair and one took me by my arms, pulling them behind my back. I didn't scream, I didn't cry; I just watched in awe-filled horror as they asked her where "it" was.
"I don't know," she said softly and looked over at me. "Please, it's my daughter's day of birth."
One of them looked at me, cutting only his eyes and then his face. "Happy day of birth, little one. Aren't you going to be a pretty thing one day?" My mother fought against her captor with effort, but she had always told me the Militia were given vitamins to make them stronger than us. And I'd never been this close to one. They were huge. "Did Mommy bring you home a present?"
His question snapped me back to reality and I didn't have enough time to school my features. My face must have given me away and then my worried look to my mother was the second blow to our plan.
"Mommy," I whispered, not knowing what else to do.
"It's okay, Soph," she soothed and nodded to me. "Give him the doll." I squinted. She couldn't mean the doll she'd just— "Give him Lolly. It'll all be okay, I promise you."
I gulped. Oh. Lolly. She was being sneaky. I looked up at the giant mass of man holding me and he smiled with his perfectly straight white teeth. He probably thought he was encouraging me, but it made me feel all the more anxious of his intentions.
"Go on, little one," he said and nudged me with his leg against my hip.
I left his grasp, still treading softly, as if our neighbors didn't know the Militia were in our house. The entire compound had to know with all the noise they had made. I took Lolly in my hands, looking at her tattered hair and gave her hair one last stroke before I let my disappointed gaze settle back up to the giant.
He took that as the cue he was waiting for and tugged the doll from my fingers, albeit gently. He bent down to be at eye level with me. "You know you aren't supposed to have this here, don't you?" he said, his voice almost a whisper.
I nodded. "Yes," I answered in kind.
"You know your mother broke the rules by bringing this to you." It wasn't a question. "You have to follow the rules, pay for privileges, work really hard, and then get them. That's how it works. You can't steal and trade for things that don't belong to you or that are above your station. Don't follow your mother's example."
Mommy scoffed behind him, but the man didn't turn to look at her. He continued. "You just keep following your routine, be a good girl, and someone will come for you soon."
It hit me then. They were taking Mommy. "You're taking Mommy because she gave me a doll for my present? She's going to confinement because of it?"
They stayed silent and that was my answer.
"Will I have to go, too? I can't stay here?"
One of the other sentries chuckled under his breath. "Unless you can come up with your own taxes in ten days, sweetheart."
"Quiet," the sentry in front of me barked over his shoulder and all the men flinched a little. He must have been someone with authority. Which made me wonder why he was trying to put on a show of kindness to me if he was so high up in the Militia ranks. He did this often—took mothers and fathers from their homes and put them in confinement for the rest of their lives for not paying taxes, for breaking rules, for all sorts of things. And now here he was trying to act as if he was doing me a solid? I felt my lips twist with the effort not to cry in front of him as he looked back at me. "Listen to me, little one. Your mother broke the law."
"For me," I whispered. I saw his jaw clench. Even my mind could understand then. "You have a daughter, don't you?"
He sighed and his face hardened. Too far, Sophelia. Too far.
"She—whether or not I have a daughter has nothing to do with the fact that your mother broke the law, laws that are clearly laid out for all citizens to follow to keep us all safe."
"All this for a contraband doll?" I muttered.
His look over at her was swift before he rose. "Time to go, Wendy."
It had been two years since I'd heard someone call my mother by her name and it punched me in the gut. I'd only ever heard my father call her that before as it was.
She tried to leave the sentry's grasp and he held tight. "Let me," she begged. She looked over at the sentry in front of me. "You know where I'm going. You know what's going to happen to her. Let me say goodbye."
They stared for long seconds that weaved awkwardness in the air that I thought the other sentries could feel, too, before he finally nodded his head. The sentry didn't look happy about letting her go, but he did so.
Mom ran to me and fell to her knees roughly as her arms wound around me she whispered so low in my ear, I barely heard. I thought that was probably the point. "Don't sell the book, no matter what. Not even for taxes. Don't ever let them find it or the doll. You'll need it one day. Don't worry. You are so strong. I know you are. Things get rough before they get better. But you're so strong. Remember that."
"Can I come see you in confinement?" I asked, but I knew I couldn't. No one was allowed to.
"I'm not going to confinement, baby, and I need you to be so strong for me right now." She leaned back and smiled through her tears again and I'd never been more scared than I was right in that moment when I looked into her worn face. "I'm going to be a better place. I'm going to see Daddy. But you are going to help people. You are the helper, Sophelia. The one who takes all the bad and ugly and makes it what it was supposed to be in the first place. You will bring this world to its knees one day."
I opened my mouth to say...something to that. "I—"
"One day you'll get to fly, Soph, just like Pan and Wendy. Fly away home to a better place where everything is brighter, boys are never lost, and mothers don't ever leave. But right now? Don't mourn me," she whispered. "I love you and I planned this. All is as it should be. One day, you will understand."
My eyes bulged. Mourn?
"That's enough. It's time." The sentry took her arm and lifted her up. She stroked my face once more before making her way to the door where one sentry had already made his way out and started his decent down the ladder. She turned and gave me that tearful smile. I tried to smile for her. I tried, I really did, but it turned into tears before I could even process what was happening.
I had run to her before I could think. And before I could even enjoy my final hug with her, I was being pulled off and she was being ordered down the ladder. "It's all okay, Soph," she said, her soft, soothing voice meant to calm me as it usually did. "All is as it should be. Thimble kisses."
I nodded as I fought. "Thimble kisses."
I yanked against the man once more before I gave up, taking a deep breath when I saw her face and head disappear below the bottom of the door. She was gone and so was the all fight in me. The other sentries left leaving me with the man who was part Militia, part father. And neither of those helped me right now.
His grasp on my arm stayed firm and steady, but he turned to place me in the one chair in our home gently. Again with the gentleness I didn't understand.
"Soph?" he tried. "Is that what she called you?" I stayed quiet, unable to process what was going to happen to me. I had heard stories of children who couldn't pay their taxes after they lost their parents for one reason or another. They didn't come back to school and from the whispers I never wanted to find out if what I heard was true. I was now one of those children. "Hey."
I jerked my gaze up to him. "Yes?"
His jaw worked back and forth before he spoke. "Like I told you, stay here, go to school on your assigned day, do as you're told." I could have sworn I saw him gulp. But why? "There will be someone coming by in a few days after tax day to get you when your family's payment doesn't come in. They'll...process you."
Process. That sounded painful even to my ears.
"Will I have to leave my pod?"
"Yes," he answered quickly. "They'll take you somewhere. You can't stay here by yourself forever. Without taxes the water and food will stop coming."
"I can take care of myself," I grunted.
When he smiled, it transformed his entire face. This was the face he used with his own daughter, I was sure. "Of that I have no doubt, little one. But you can't stay here alone that long. We have to find a purpose for you, a place amongst society. Your work placement will probably happen a little sooner than others."
"Will I do what Mommy did?"
Mom worked in the mines and she hated it. I hated it, too, on her behalf. They mined salt, minor metal mineral that were worthless on the black market, and other things like that. I didn't want that job. It makes your face and the inside of your lungs black.
His face morphed back into what it was like before and I knew he was trying to hide something from me. "I don't think so. Okay, time for me go. You remember what I said—"
There was a loud noise outside and several screams mixed together. Somehow I knew this was it—what Mom had been talking about. She hadn't made it to containment and never would. My sentry ran to the door of our pod and looked down to see what the commotion was about. When I saw his back rise and fall with deep breath, I walked behind him on my soft footfalls and peeked around his arm.
Mom was laying on the ground at the bottom of the ladder, her leg was twisted beneath her in a way that wasn't normal as two of the sentries stood around her and the other two still made their way down the ladder. Our pod was eleven stacks up. There was no way she could have survived the fall. Mom had always warned me about the ladder, about how careful I had to be, about always hooking the rope around my waist before going down or coming up, even if I had to wait for other tenants to go first.
A noise escaped my mouth, startling the sentry. "No," he barked and turned me to face the other way. "You don't need to see that."
Wailing continued all around me as my vision blurred. A crackling filled the air and the sentry lifted his wrist to talk into the screen on his forearm and tell them he was with 'the girl', and the traitor had fallen to her death.
"Traitor?" I whispered.
He ignored me and kept speaking to them. I noticed the wailing had stopped. I guess it had been me. I slid down the wall next to the door to the floor, feeling the cool metal against my skin through my thin clothes. This was a fickle planet—almost too cold in some months and too hot in others, never just right, but our pods were warm enough. When I didn't have school I usually just left on one of Father's shirts. It made me feel close to him and sometimes Mom would smile when she looked at it and it made me feel nice to make her smile, even if just for a second.
I looked down at my bare dirty legs on the floor and knew that she'd never smile at me again. A sob crawled up from my gut painfully. I looked up at the man to find him watching me.
He looked fascinated. "I'm surprised you're not bawling your eyes out, little one."
I straightened my back and wiped my cheek. "Mom always told me to be so strong. To not let anything break me."
He seemed angered by that. He shook his head as he got back down on his haunches and looked closely at me. "Your mother told you wrong, Soph," he said, gently but firm. "Being strong is not going to keep you alive, it'll get you killed. Doing as you're told and laying low is the way to live long on this planet, little one. And there's many ways to look at being strong. Is it strong to defy your government and break the law? Is it strong to put your people and your daughter in danger?" I gulped. I knew what he was trying to do. "Is it strong to do it all anyway knowing that your daughter is going to go some horrible place that is going to—" He sighed. "She's a convict." I gasped because that word was only used on rare occasions, for rare people. Bad, bad people were convicts.
"Yes," he reiterated. "She's an enemy of the people. A traitor. You don't know the things she's done. And now she's trying to turn you into one, too."
"No, that's not what she—"
"Then why would she go to so much trouble just to bring you a doll for your birthday?" His eyebrows rose in waiting.
I was starting to see that this man didn't wait for much.
"Dad always said that one day he would earn enough silver to buy me a doll. But when he died, Mom couldn't pay our taxes and get the doll, too."
He softened again. "Yes. I read on your file chip that your father had died in an accident. But that doesn't excuse your mother's crimes."
I opened my mouth to defend her, to say something, but he was already moving on.
"You can stay here until the processors come to get you. It'll be about ten days."
"Until tax day," I realized.
He nodded. "Yes. When you can't pay your family's taxes, they'll take you in for processing."
"And then what will happen to me?"
He hadn't looked at me since he had said the word "processors". He kept going as if I hadn't asked the question so I just stayed quiet like he had told me to.
"There will be food and water for you until then. I guess I wouldn't worry about your school day. It won't be necessary where you're going."
"What does that mean? I'll have a new school?"
He finally looked at me and I saw it. It was my gift, I guess you could say. I could see the truth in people's faces when they looked at me and finally decided to stop hiding it, whether they said the words out loud or not.
I wasn't going somewhere rosy and I wasn't going to need school because they weren't going to allow me to go to school anyway. I was going where he'd never send his daughter, where I'd never want to go, where my mother would never have sent me if it wasn't absolutely necessary. I was going to the place that I'd always heard about in whisperings at school, in myths, in stories that were always half-truths, half-lies.
I was going to be a slave.
Ten Years Later
"That doesn't go with the common metals, it goes with the silvers. How long have you working here?" she quipped, her black hair still shiny from wherever she came from. She hadn't been here long enough for this life to taint her mind and body yet. But it would.
"Working here would imply some form of payment, Helga. And payment is something I've never received. Just call it what it is." I turned to look at her again. "You're the new one here. I've been here longer than I've been free. So don't tell me what I know and don't know about this place. It goes with the commons because that's what it is." I turned the basket toward her and showed her the goods anyway. "See." I picked a big chunk up with the magnet hanging on the basket. "All common metals. Now get back to work on your side before Rivers come back."
She grinned evilly. "You said "work". I thought we didn't work here—"
"Just shut up and finish."
She groaned as she walked over to her side. "I'm so hungry I could eat the tail off of a horsopotomus."
"Gross. And stop." My stomach grumbled as she talked about food, even if was about eating the patrol Militia's riding units.
I rolled my eyes. I couldn't complain really. I had it better than other slaves. At least I wasn't in the mines. They never saw the sun and they never got much food, just enough to keep them going, from what I heard anyway.
At least I got to eat three meals a day. They may not be the meals I wanted to eat, but they were meals. Of sorts. The door slammed upstairs and Helga seized up so violently that her basket spilled.
I rushed over. "Helga," I hissed. "You can't do things like this."
"I'm sorry," she said, rushing to help me throw the pieces of metal back into her basket. We both knew what it meant to not finish our work, let alone spilling or damaging the goods. My fingers were cutting against the sharp lines on the metal shards and edges, but I kept tossing them in as quickly as I could. The basement door opened and then my heart seized as well. There was still pieces on the floor.
She stood and grabbed my basket, rushing to stand a few feet away in front of her work station. I glared up at her, but she refused to meet my eyes, just looked ahead stoically.
"You know what he'll do to me," I whispered as I continued to pick up her pieces."
She kept her eyes forward and whispered back harshly. "Better you than me."
I'd never been so ashamed of my kind before. Helga had been with us for three weeks now and I'd done nothing but help her and show her all the ways to avoid River's wrath, and this was how my kindness was repaid? Traitorism?
"There's a special place for traitors in the underworld," I hissed before standing and putting my feet over the pieces I could still see on the floor.
Rivers came down and already looked peeved about something as he thumbed through his mail on his handheld device. "Junk, junk, junk..." He looked up and saw me out of place, not in my spot in front of the work baskets. "Why are you not working?"
"I was—" I was going to say that picking up the pieces that Helga had dropped, but once again, she was a traitorous little saving-her-own-neck slave.
"She's trying to hide the iron she dropped, Rivers!"
He looked at her and then down at my feet. His eyes popped up to mine and he looked absolutely murderous. But then he said softly, "I thought I told you not to call me that outside of the bedroom, baby doll."
Yack, I just threw up in my mouth. I was the only slave he'd kept for so long. I didn't know why. He always had two girls though, but the other one he rotated out every few months. It made no sense but I wasn't allowed to ask. And I wasn't allowed to call him Rivers to his face either. I called him Proprietor because that's what he was. He was my owner and nothing else.
I looked over at his stupid, smug face. I'm sure the other girls ate up that expression. He was lean and kind of muscly. His hair was blonde with blue tips and he had tattoos on his hands. Snakes on each fingers. I could only imagine the gross things he did and said, the puns alone...
I looked up to find him watching me. "What's with the face?"
I grimaced harder. "I'm trying not to puke imagining someone who'll have sex with you."
He raced across the room so fast, I barely saw him move. He was wearing his hurtle boots, for people always running late and messengers. Or for jerkfaces that just wanted to be mean and scare people. They cost a pretty silver because they had to be connected to your cerebral or something. I didn't know how it worked, I just knew that you thought it and it obeyed. And that Rivers had a pair.
He gripped my chin in his hard fingers, the snakes moved on his skin, hissing from the ends of his fingers and acting as though they'd bite me if they could only get to me. They always treated me like I was more than a slave, like I was more than just his property, in the worst way. I never understood it, but Rivers was a strange man. A strange proprietor. I stopped trying to understand him long ago.
"Watch your mouth, grub."
I felt my breath turn shallow. He only called me that when he was really pissed, when he was really trying to piss me off. Grub was the dirtiest word for a slave you could speak and he'd only ever called me that six times in my entire time that I'd been with him. Funny that every time had been because of another one of his girls.
"Proprietor," I said carefully, "Helga is trying to use your balls to her advantage where she knows I have no pull. I have been in your ownership for ten years and have never lied to you. These girls are in and out every few months and apparently think that I'm their scapegoat every time they do something wrong and that you'll fall for it because you're having coitus with them. Please don't be that gullible guy."
"Who I have coitus with is not your business," he growled and flicked his eyes to her.
Helga was obviously getting the picture. The big picture. Ding, ding, ding, Helga!
"You mean you have coitus with all the other...slaves," she whispers, because saying that word aloud was a bit taboo, too. And Rivers having coitus with his slaves was just as bad as outright calling someone a grub, to polite society anyway. The lower level didn't care, but respectable men bought coitus the old fashion way instead of getting it for free from his slaves. What a tangled web we weave.
"Not me." I wrenched my face away from his hand. "Just get on with it. We both know that I wasn't the one who dropped the slivers of tin on the floor, we both know that you aren't going to punish her for it because you're sleeping with her, and we both know that you don't give a crap about any of it."
He stood straighter and lifted his chin. "I hate it when your backbone starts showing. It just means that I have to beat it back down."
And right then I knew what I had to do. I didn't want to... I hoped my mother wasn't listening...
"You just go have dirty sex with your slaves and let me be—"
The slap across my face hurt, but him grabbing my hair hurt worse. I heard the alarm go off and the scanner's red laser light tried to scan me but couldn't find my face, so River's leaned back, still holding my hair, let it scan me, and then slammed my body against the wall as the speaker blared, telling me about my fine.
"Not only did you just cost me money, I will not allow filth talk like that in my place and presence, do you understand me, grub? Your dead mother would be ashamed of you."
He was probably right, but I was getting out of here tonight so I hoped she would forgive me.
He took me over to the list on the wall, the list the Militia put on the wall of unacceptable words and behaviors.
"Look at this list and know that it's here to help us, to keep us from going back to where we were. It's here to—"
"It's here for people like you, people at the top of the food chain," I groaned against his hold. "In a real world, the world slave would be up there, the word grub would be up there. In a real world, you wouldn't be about to take me for a beating that I didn't deserve because a girl that you're having coitus with dropped your tin shavings and blamed me."
He jerked me from the wall without a word and took me upstairs to his shop. I looked around at the people who were shopping, all knowing with the way he was holding me what was about to happen. It wasn't my first beating, but it would be my last. Those ropes, as they tired around my wrist, felt like the most freedom I'd had in the last ten years of my life. He looked down at me with a sadness that I wasn't sure was real or not as he took his belt off from around his pants. It was such a human thing, he had always told me. He read in our history books that the old slave owners on Earth used to beat their slaves and children with their belts. So he wore one just in case he ever needed it, even though our pants were fitted to us biometrically. And then he moved around to my back. I waited, knowing this was what had to happen for my freedom.
I gripped that pole in the middle of the shop, the shoppers who had stopped looking for random metal items had stopped to watch—to watch the slave get hers, get what she deserved because why else would her proprietor beat her?
When the first lash hit across my back, I gritted my teeth and told myself not to cry out, that this was what I needed to do to leave him forever, this was what my mother would want, that I was about to reunited with her and my father, in my own way.
The second one hit and I hissed, couldn't be helped. I saw a man smile in the back of the small crowd that had gathered to watch me take my licks. It wasn't the first time I'd been watched get a beating, people were fascinated by it, but the sickos that smiled and acted like I deserved it?
The third lash hit and I couldn't stop the small moan of pain that escaped. Rivers pressed his mouth to my ear from behind. "There's a crowd. Denying me the painful moans won't do you any good. I'll keep at it until you give in. I won't be embarrassed. Just give it to me and I'll make it quick. Cry and I'll even give you the salve."
I gasped. He'd never given me the salve in all my time with him. The salve could practically numb you, and by the next day, you'd think you hadn't been beaten at all. It was a miracle salve. Why was he willing to give it to me?
I looked over my shoulder at him, saw nothing but ego. He wasn't trying to help me. He just wanted a good show. Well, this one time, I was willing to give them one. Because I wanted to be done with this and I go to the hole faster.
The next lash, I cried out harder. The next last I cried actual tears and sobbed, letting my restraints on my wrists be the only thing holding me up. I let all my emotion bubble to the top for my mom and how I hated this man and this life and how I was so close to being done with it. The scream that erupted from me was primal and angry and sad and anguished. When I looked up, you would have thought they were watching their favorite TV show, they looked so enthralled.
"Is this what you want?" I rasped and jerked against my restraints. "Is this what you want to see? The slave beaten down and fighting for her life?"
Rivers lopped his belt around his neck and roughly unclasped my hands as the onlookers watched me, saying nothing. He yanked me to the side door, taking me to the back room, what Rivers called his 'dungeon', and tossed me unceremoniously inside.
"When you will you learn that we all have our place, our parts to play?"
I scoffed, wincing as the slices on my back pulled. "When will you learn that it's up to you if you play those parts or not?"
He looked even more peeved, if that was possible, as he shut the door and locked it with the key her kept round his neck. I knew I wasn't getting any salve.
I moved swiftly, knowing that every second counted. I discounted the aching and hurting in my body. That didn't matter in the grand scheme of things right now. I had seven lashes total and that wasn't as bad as I could have gotten or had before. I'd gotten off lucky this time.
I moved swiftly, making sure the baggy of shavings was tucked securely in my bra before I began, and then I started my plan for my way out of this place. There was a ship at the docks leaving this side of the planet, and I planned to be on it.