Malu almost turned back when she saw the Andrean. The thing looked like a giant insect that had escaped from some freak-show. But she couldn’t go back; only slow torture and death awaited her if she stopped now – the only fate that ever befell an escaping slave was a slow and very public execution. Captured runaways were put to good use, as an example to the rest. And besides, the factory was now just a frozen tomb floating in empty space, a depressurized hulk full of ghosts.
And suddenly, she was thinking soothing, calming thoughts. Everything was going to be all right. Two more steps took her into the tunnel, and a few more into the ship.
The sensation of calm vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and she realized that the rumors she’d heard were true. Andreans were telepathic, and they could read the thoughts, and, to a certain extent, project feelings into the less complex minds of humans.
She almost panicked again as she studied the interior of the ship. The light was much too dim for human comfort, and, to make things worse, the reddish hue did little to illuminate the completely black-surfaced interior of the vessel. There were no straight lines or flat surfaces visible anywhere; every single shape was composed of organic curves covered in either a black chitinous material or some kind of clear fluid which she pretended was water.
The floor was under a thin coating of the liquid, and Malu’s bare feet splashed softly as the people crowding in behind her forced her deeper into the cabin.
“Oh, god,” she heard Terrence whisper to her rear, but he fell silent as his words echoed eerily in the cabin.
Malu advanced through wet corridors to the far end of the chamber, grateful for the feel of Terrence’s arm on her shoulder as she searched for somewhere she could sit down and rest. The walk had not been long, but she’d been in a constant state of panic ever since they’d left the factory floor.
Steeling herself, she started to sit on the wet floor with her back against a gently curving wall, when suddenly a panel in front of her opened.
Her startled scream echoed through the ship. She felt Terrence’s hand tighten and heard him grunt. He’d been as surprised as she was by the sudden appearance of the enormous insectoid head and faceted eyes that had popped without warning from the depths of the doorway.
The Andrean stood before them, rubbing two of its limbs together, warming them up, preparing to speak.
“Welcome,” it said, “You are free now.” The vibrations of the membranes behind its legs created a perfectly modulated imitation of a human voice. Not quite masculine, but too deep to be feminine. “We can feel your unease. Please don’t be afraid.”
Malu just nodded, hoping the creature would just leave them alone, go bother some other human on the vessel. There were, after all, more than a dozen slaves aboard.
Former slaves, she reminded herself.
“Thank you,” Terrence replied.
The Andrean moved away, leaving them feeling reassured. It was a feeling that Malu immediately recognized as artificial, projected by the insect’s mind, and she resented it. But she still felt better and more relaxed; she couldn’t help it.
The other humans were soon loaded onto the vessel, each huddled in a different nook or corner. Most were alone, but there were at least two other pairs seated together, whether already friends before boarding or just needing company in this ordeal, Malu was unable to tell.
“So where do you think they’re taking us?” she asked Terrence in a hoarse whisper. She didn’t feel comfortable talking out loud in the dim confines of the ship.
“How should I know? But I guess the most logical place would be Jungalia.”
She snorted. “Jungalia’s a bedtime story. It doesn’t exist. How many times have I told you that?”
“It exists,” he replied, a mulish expression marring already unattractive, scarred features. Long work in high gravity under a scorching sun had made his skin sag and given him scars from the blisters, making him rather monstrous to look at. Only the fact that the softness of his heart shone through the expression in his eyes made him a bearable companion.
But he was old, nearly thirty. He’d served under the Skroull for seventeen years on planet after planet doing the work that they commanded, and coming into contact with other long-serving slaves. Slaves who believed in a planet full of free humans: the mythical Jungalia.
It was understandable, in a way. What else could make life worth living? The Skroull had made it clear that they were delighted with their new slave race, the best combination of intelligence and submissiveness they’d encountered so far. Although the Andreans were smarter, and therefore slightly more efficient as workers in the Service sector of the galactic economy, this small advantage was more than offset by their tendency to sabotage everything in sight. Death held few terrors for the individuals of a hive-mind, and it was uneconomical to find their hives on secluded worlds and kill them all.
So the Skroull, the ultimate accountants, had simply decided to replace the Andreans in the workforce with humans. Humans who were easily controlled. Humans who were afraid to die. Humans who spent their time pining for the better life that awaited them at the end of the escape routes in Jungalia.
Malu, however, had been an adult slave for only three years. She’d been harvested on Earth at the age of twelve and put to work as a quality control technician in a factory orbiting Procyon. She’d led a relatively comfortable life. And she definitely didn’t believe in Jungalia. So, deciding to spare his feelings, she said nothing.
But Terrence must have been able to read her expression. “Jungalia exists, Malu. I know. You said the same thing about slave escapes, and look at us now.”
“Yeah,” she shuddered. “We were lucky to survive the raid. Why in the world did they cut open the station like that? They killed everyone!” She was still in shock. Only the fact that they’d been on the separately pressurized manufacturing floor had saved their lives and that of their dozen companions. Everyone else, her only friends in the galaxy, was dead.
One of the Andreans approached. “We attacked the way we did in order to insure that every Skroull died. Had we done it any other way, they would have been able to use their control pods to incapacitate us by sending agony into our minds. We would have died, and you would still be slaves. Is it not preferable to have a few free humans rather than a space station full of people who were living in death?”
“You should have given them a choice!”
“They were dead in life, now they are dead in deed. There was no need for a choice. Be thankful that, now, you are truly alive.” The Andrean walked off, leaving them physically alone, but all too aware that anything they said or even thought would be picked up by their rescuers.
It had been a logical approach, if a bloody one. The delicate Skroull, adapted to low gravity, could not bear the higher pressures on the factory floor. Their air-sacs would simply have collapsed under the strain. None of them had survived the sudden depressurization of the living areas of the station.
The ship began to move, forcing Malu and Terrence to find a more comfortable position for the acceleration. Due to the lack of flat surfaces, it was impossible to find a place to lay their backs which was perpendicular to the movement, and offered ideal support. But, by jamming into tight nooks, they were able, at least, to find a stable position from which the g-forces would not dislodge them. They were both thankful for the relatively tame acceleration of needed to gain speed in interplanetary space. No more than two or two and a half gee. Enough for discomfort, but not enough to black out.
The initial thrust soon dropped to a more normal cruising acceleration in preparation for the fold, and the terror of the attack and subsequent liberation soon faded, to be replaced by the boredom of space flight. Even the most exotic situations lose interest after hours of nothing, and with no immediate threat to life or limb. Soon, more mundane matters began to become more pressing.
“I’m hungry,” Terrence said. “I wonder if they’ve planned on feeding us.”
Malu was also hungry, but she had much more pressing needs. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she replied. “And very soon, too.” Her need became great enough that she actually risked getting up out of her niche in order to try to catch the eye of one of the Andreans.
There were none in sight but, soon enough, a huge black insect materialized out of the gloom.
“What do you need?” it asked.
“I have to go to the bathroom!” she replied.
“Is it for liquid or solid excretion?” Well, at least the insect understood a little about human physiognomy.
“That is not a problem. Please excrete into the liquid on any surface, which will adjust its chemistry to neutralize human liquid excretion. This has already been programmed into the ship’s chemical plant.” The creature walked back into the gloom, disappearing as suddenly as it had appeared.
Malu found a pool of liquid pushed by the low acceleration into a nook where she wouldn’t be seen, and went about her business, wondering where the liquid had been under the strong initial acceleration. Why hadn’t it coated the walls? Even with the artigrav pulling downward, it should have been affected by the thrust. Just another mystery born of alien technology.
She went back to Terrence, who asked her about the restrooms. She laughed and told him. He rolled his eyes and leaned back against the bulkhead he was using to recline against. He put her arm around her, and they speculated as to where the insects were taking them. Would they join a free human colony? Would they be allowed to live on some secret free Andrean base? Or was the purpose something more sinister: would they be locked in a zoo, or cooked and fed to Andrean larvae?
They had discussed all of these possibilities and more at great length without coming to any conclusions, when suddenly an uncomfortable buzzing in their ears made them sit up.
“What’s that?” Malu said, and, as soon as she heard her voice, instantly realized that what she’d thought was sound was not sound at all, but some kind of buzzing in her mind. That the Andreans must be doing something telepathically.
The buzzing was the only warning they had. The ship suddenly rocked hard and began to spin slowly on its horizontal axis. An Andrean appeared out of a doorway, staggered drunkenly for a few steps and collapsed. Milky fluid began to seep from the joint between its head and its torso.
Panic welled in Malu’s stomach, she could feel her heart in her throat. “What’s going on?” she screamed.
Terrence shrugged, shaking his head. His saucer-like eyes quickly conveyed that he was even more petrified than she was, which was only natural, since, while she’d spent the last three years on a space station, he’d only been there a few months, having lived the bulk of his life before that on planet after planet. His faith in the integrity of spacecraft hulls was a lot less complete than hers.
She grabbed him by the arm and led him through the doorway from which the Andrean had emerged. The opening led into a short passageway and another darkened access panel which was halfway open. They were forced to crawl under it.
An infinity of bright points of light greeted them, seen through what must be the ship’s forward viewing port. All that lay between them and the stars were a few feet of flat space and a horizontal bar full of tiny levers and buttons, which, Malu guessed, must be the main controls to the ship.
A single Andrean oozed white liquid and twitched on the floor of the control room. Terrence approached it cautiously, but was still surprised at the speed with which the insect lifted its head slightly and grabbed his leg with a single chitin-covered claw. He emitted a startled yelp.
The Andrean tried to speak, rubbing its membranes together. The sound was weak, rasping, barely recognizable as human Sinoglish.
“Skroull…” it said. “Pain, much pain. Coordinates locked.” The strain of the movement seemed to be too much for it, and the loss of liquid grew more pronounced. It was quite clear, even to Malu, who’d had only limited contact with Andreans, that it was near death. “Fold programmed. Don’t touch contro…”
The Andrean’s head fell back to the floor with a sickening thud. It didn’t move again, and even the seepage of liquid soon stopped.
Out ahead, one of the stars grew slightly larger, and then larger still, until it became obvious that it was on a collision course with the ship. It closed much too fast for Malu to be able to tell whether it was a projectile or something else, but it was obviously a weapon of some sort.
The ship shuddered with impact, increasing its rotation to uncomfortable levels, centripetal force fighting with the artigrav, in a sickening, disconcerting pull.
They’d barely recovered from the shot when Malu heard a soft whistle coming from somewhere in the hold behind them. She recognized it in a second and ran to the door, which had a button and a thick black lever beside it. Punching the button repeatedly, had no effect. The door remained jammed, halfway up.
She pulled on the lever, but couldn’t make it budge.
Her fear was contagious. Terrence grabbed her arm and screamed, “What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to close this door!”
“Can’t you hear?” The whistling had grown louder; it was starting to turn into a roar. She could feel the draft starting. “We’re losing air. That last shot must have broken through our armor!”
“Let’s go tell the rest of them,” Terrence said, nodding towards the hold and getting down on his hands and knees in preparation to going through the half-open doorway.
Malu pulled on his hair, trying to get him to stand. “There’s no time!”
“Screw the rest of them. Do you want to die? Pull the lever!”
By now, Terrence was completely panicked. He pushed her aside and pulled on the lever, adrenaline giving him strength. It resisted for a second before snapping downward suddenly. The door clanged shut.
Malu placed her ear beside the panel and breathed a sigh of relief. She could hear no air seepage. The door had sealed.
Now all they had to worry about was the Skroull vessel firing on them. They soon identified one star that was moving towards them, at much lower velocity than whatever had been shot at them before. Evidently the Skroull were convinced that the shot, and whatever mind-weapon they’d used to incapacitate the Andreans had rendered the ship helpless, and they were coming in to recover the bounty. The ever-economical Skroull would never let a working ship go to waste.
Malu knew that she would have been better off freeze dried with the rest of the slaves in the hold. Being made an example of by the Skroull was always long and painful. And the ship was much too close to the star’s gravity field to risk a fold, even if they’d known how to work the controls.
And yet, less than five minutes later, long before the Skroull had reached them, the ship folded.
An eternal instant later, the ship reentered realspace, spinning wildly on its vertical axis, and much, much too close to the blue and green planet that could be seen through the front screen.
They were thrown around like rag dolls as the ship automatically corrected and tried to find a trajectory that would save the occupants and the ship from burning up on reentry. Fortunately, powered reentry was much more precise than ballistic reentry, and a few minutes later, the ship had pierced the atmosphere, descending in a wide spiral towards a jungle of some type, veined with brightly glistening rivers.
Malu released the door handle, which she’d managed to grab on to instinctively after the initial jolts subsided, and tried to rouse Terrence, who seemed to be unconscious and had landed atop the now severely damaged body of their Andrean host. Only when she noticed that his head was lying at an extremely unnatural angle did she desist.
Thankful for her empty stomach, she dry-heaved into a corner a few times before getting back under control.
She stood with her back to the bodies, concentrating on the vegetation below, and trying to think of something, anything other than her dead friend on the floor. Although the task seemed impossible, she soon found herself thinking about her own survival. How long would she last in a jungle? Her first twelve years of life had been in a crèche on Earth, and then she’d lived in the station. Her food had always been given to her at regular intervals by her keepers. Where would she find a processing plant to get food from on this planet? It looked completely deserted.
Long before she’d reached any conclusions, the ship landed with a bit of a jarring thud that nearly knocked her off her feet again, and the doorway behind her opened automatically. Evidently, their manual override earlier had reset it, removing whatever glitch had caused it to jam earlier.
She soon reached the cabin holding the slowly thawing, broken corpses of her fellow slaves and the rest of the Andreans. Evidently, the larger confines of the hold had allowed more room for the bodies to fly, and more damage had been done. She quickly ran out of the main airlock, which had also cycled open – probably an automated safety response in emergency landings on dry land.
The air outside felt, to her, like an oven. Hot, hotter than anywhere she’d ever been. And wet. The air seemed to cling to her skin. Could humans survive in this temperature?
Stepping off the edge of the ship, her feet landed in a shallow stream, sending small grey creatures scurrying away. The ship, it now became obvious, had landed in the only area it could find not covered in trees. Already, it was acting as a dam, causing the backed-up river to flow into the forest all around her.
Something landed on her arm. It looked like one of the flies she’d seen on Earth, but twenty times bigger. She screamed and hit it with her other hand. Startled and afraid, she backed toward the ship, only to feel something brush the back of her pants leg.
She ran madly into the forest ahead.
She ducked between two trees, ran past another and, suddenly, here chest slammed into a horizontal impediment which dropped her on her ass. She thought she’d run into a branch until she saw that the barrier was polished smooth and had tassels hanging from one end, which was also topped by a metal blade. Movement at the other end caused her to turn sharply.
Standing there, holding this primitive weapon, was a man. Dressed in green pants and jacket of some synthetic fiber, face painted to resemble a leafy pattern, he was unmistakably a man. And unmistakably human.
He buried the spear point-first in the soft earth and advanced toward her. She crawled backwards on her butt, away from him, until she hit a tree behind. She cowered behind her arms as he advanced, hand outstretched, towards her, bracing for the inevitable blow.
But the blow never came. She opened her eyes to see that the man was still there, arm outstretched, waiting for her to move. A sudden calm, peaceful sensation came over her, and she reached out with her own hand, clasped hard, and allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
The man smiled at her. “Welcome to Jungalia,” he said in broken, accented Sinoglish.
Sadness broke through the calm as she thought of Terrence, and how vindicated he would have felt to know that his dream, and that of all the other longtime slaves was a reality. But soon the calm returned, and with it, certain suspicions.
“Where’s the Andrean?” she asked the man, who just smiled at her in response.
Suddenly, from all around, shapes detached themselves from the shadows, and appeared from behind trees or bushes. Five, ten, twenty figures. Most were human, men and women, holding spears. But one was a tall, black insect that radiated calm and peace.
“Greetings,” it said. “How was your trip?”
The calm sensation kept her from making a sarcastic reply, but not from remembering the terror. A tear came, unbidden, to her eye. “It was terrible,” she stammered. “Everyone’s dead, and Terrence…” Malu sobbed once, before continuing. “He never hurt anyone!” She finally broke down completely.
“Yes. But you are free now, and the rest died in pursuit of freedom, a condition without which life is not worth living,” the Andrean replied. Malu resented his impersonal, impassive voice which was neither male nor female, and somehow less alive because of it.
“I don’t care! Who asked you to come rescue us? The Skroull might not accept us as equals, but at least they didn’t go around massacring us for no reason. You murdered an entire space station to save one person. One! How can you justify that?”
“We have access to the entirety of human literature, history and philosophy, all of your great thinkers and all of your most eloquent exponents. And they teach us, among others, two inescapable truths about humanity: that a life of slavery is not worth living, and that oppressed humans will always rise up to destroy their oppressors. That is why we have chosen you as our ally in the great fight against the Skroull’s oppression of this cluster.”
“What can we do against the Skroull with spears? Are you stupid?” Malu was screaming, frantic now that the shock of the voyage was being replaced by terrified outrage. “You killed everyone just to bring them here? Do you really think those spears are going to help you when the Skroull arrive? We’ll all die!”
The Andrean radiated amusement.
“We are not planning on defending ourselves with spears. We are here to train for attack using guidance tactics. Human beings, coordinated by Andrean minds, become a perfect strike force.” Suddenly, with no signal from the Andrean, all of the humans raised their spears and threw them. The spears all hit the same tree at the same time at the same speed, with uncanny precision. “You see, we have found a way to link directly to the motor centers of the human brain to coordinate large groups. And when you combine this with our capacity to suppress fear, human regiments, correctly armed with fast-attack craft, can defeat the Skroull with no problems.”
“So we die for your glory.”
“Of course not. It is true that human troops will bear the brunt of any attacks, but there is a reason. Humans have to be the main strike force because the Skroull have long since perfected an electromagnetic transmitter that interferes with Andrean brainwaves, basically turning our brains to jelly. All we can really do is coordinate a human strike from afar. It is logical. We are much stronger when we work together.”
“And how many humans are in your army?”
“We have millions, and the equipment is nearly ready. We strike as soon as we can. Come, join us.”
The Andrean walked into the jungle, followed by his squadron. Malu went last, wondering whether the powerful, advanced Andreans would really let humanity go its own way when the Skroull were vanquished. After all, why would you release a species that you had learned to control so completely? Wasn’t the current condition of humanity, slaves, certainly, but at least slaves that functioned under their own will better than a future of having emotions and thoughts controlled by the Andrean hive-mind?
She looked around for a way to escape, and soon spotted a likely cross-path. She began to edge towards it.
A wave of calm and happiness came over her. Malu walked behind the last of the spear-men, already, at an emotional level, part of the Army of Liberation.
She was free. She was calm.
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