Seduced by Heather Fox
It was a common game among the inmates of Mercenia State Correctional Facility for Deviant Women to talk about what we would do if we had our freedom restored. A way to while away the long hours of mopping floors or whatever other menial duty we were allocated that day, or whispered between cellmates at night to fight back the sense of hopelessness that always seemed worse when the lights went out.
“I’d sit by an open fire,” Rosa, my cellmate, would say. “A glass of wine in one hand, a bar of chocolate in the other. I’d listen to the crackle of the fire, breathe in the bouquet of the wine - notes of blackcurrant, just the right amount of oak. I’d take a bite of the chocolate and let it melt on my tongue, sweet and creamy and smooth, before taking a sip of the wine. On the floor, a man with long, dark hair and rugged features smiles up at me, his honey-coloured eyes full of admiration and lust. He takes my foot in his hand, removing my shoe.”
“What kind of shoe?” someone would inevitably ask, and Rosa would spend ten minutes describing the patent leather, the exact shade of red, the height of the heel, the point of the toe.
“He has big hands, this man,” she would continue, shoe detour done with for now. “Warm, not sweaty. Those big hands cup my dainty little feet and begin to massage…”
Rosa was a master at the game. She never just said ‘I’d have a drink and eat something nice.’ It was always a multi-sensory experience - sounds and smells and tastes conjured just by words. She could make even the girls most lacking in imagination feel like they were somewhere other than where they were for a little while. We’d beg her to play, especially on the days when the rainstorms outside leaked through the roof and we were confined to our tiny little cells for endless hours with nothing to do but listen to the clink of water against tin buckets. She’d always protest a little, but I think she only did it to buy herself a bit of time to think of something good. And she always thought of something good.
Rosa had been in prison a long time. She’d had plenty of practise. Plenty of time to hone her craft.
My own imaginings were not so evocative or wild. Mostly, I’d dream of a cottage on my own. A rustic little place in the countryside, miles from anybody or anything. I didn’t need a handsome man rubbing my feet in my vision of freedom - nor doing any of the other things Rosa could sometimes be persuaded to describe in torrid detail. I pictured my day starting at a wood-burning stove, boiling water for a cup of tea in a pan, cooking myself breakfast. After breakfast, I’d go out for a walk - partly to gather more firewood, but also just because I could. Freedom for me was fending for myself, living a simple, isolated life.
It’s funny how close my reality has come to that vision, though even my rustic cottage with its wood-burning stove always had running water in my imagination. I never pictured having to refill a large clay sink every morning for fresh water.
I stare at the sink in question. Rachel’s been taking care of it for us, lugging it out to the edge of the village to empty it into the trees, then carrying it over to the central fire to have it refilled with the fresh water the elders fetch from a nearby brook each morning. But Rachel left the village with Vantos yesterday to travel to a nearby tribe. She’s not here to do the heavy lifting that I can’t do, my arm still strapped. Weak and stiff after I broke it in the crash landing.
I’m about decided that I don’t need to change the water anyway - it’s only for washing, and only I’ve used it, it’s not so dirty that I can’t use it again today - when there’s a knock at my door. There are no locks on the hut doors. Anyone could barge in at any time. But there’s a code of politeness and privacy amongst the raskarrans. A closed door is a locked door to them, and no one would enter uninvited. With Rachel gone for now, that makes this hut, this space completely mine.
It’s a novelty. I’ve never had ownership of a space before, complete control over who I allow in.
I head to the door, pulling it open to find Shemza staring down at me. My heart flutters in my chest at the sight of his tall body. He’s not as big as some of the other raskarrans - slighter in frame, not as hugely muscular - but compared to my five-foot nothing, he’s still enormous. A tower of masculine gorgeousness, topped with well-defined cheekbones and a pair of beautiful brown eyes. He smiles, full lips curving upwards, making heat pool between my legs.
“Hi,” I say, keeping my voice light and breezy, as if his proximity doesn’t make my whole body jittery.
“Help?” he says, pointing to my bad arm and then behind me to my sink.
I’m so full of gratitude I could kiss him.
I could kiss him anyway, but that’s probably just my hormones going wild being around guys who aren’t assholes for the first time in… well. Ever.
“Please,” I say, smiling at him as I step aside.
He nods, then comes into my hut, picking up the heavy sink with ease, then heading out. I trot alongside him, taking three small steps for every one of his loping strides.
“Morning, Lorna,” Hannah calls as she passes us on her way back toward the central fire.
“Morning,” I answer, smiling cheerily.
Hannah’s eyes dart up to Shemza, a wariness in her gaze. I get the wariness of the raskarrans in general. They’re so much bigger than us, and so absolutely, unapologetically masculine - raw power and dangerous sex appeal in their big, green frames. Not one of them has done anything bad towards any of us. They’re gentle and considerate, and mostly big teddy bears. But they can be intimidating - especially the biggest warriors, Gregar and Vantos. Liv has the ferocity to handle anything. I’m not at all surprised she already has Gregar wrapped around her little finger. But I am surprised Rachel has opted to head off into the woods alone with Vantos. I thought she’d be a little more afraid of him.
Shemza, though - I can’t see how anyone would find him intimidating. He’s younger than the others, I think, a little more boyish in his features. Not in a bad way - I’d just describe his face as beautiful, rather than rugged or handsome. He doesn’t have the hard edge of the warriors, or the intensity of the hunters. He’s calmer, more measured.
But Hannah is wary of everything and everyone. It’s not her fault. She’s been plunged into an impossible situation - stranded on a strange new world, expecting rescue from the corporate overlord she’s worked for all her life, only to be told that the promise they gave her of a better life on Alpha Colony doesn’t extend to rescuing her when things go wrong. That the ‘better life’ was probably going to be a shit show, anyway. It’s a lot to get used to, without adding aliens into the mix.
She’ll settle in after a while, I think. Relax into her new situation. I hope so, anyway. The other girls deserve every happiness they can find. Their lives on the bottom tier were a long miserable slog, working their fingers to the bone knowing they wouldn’t have much life left in them past thirty.
It doesn’t escape me that even the most basic of fantasy scenarios Rosa imagined for us in prison were more than these girls ever could have dreamed of.
Grace is by the edge of the village, pouring out her water when we arrive.
“Good morning,” she says as we approach, smiling up at Shemza as well.
Grace has been working with him, training to be a healer the raskarran way, so she doesn’t have Hannah’s nervousness around him.
“I was going to come by to help you after doing mine.” She swipes her curly hair out of her face. It’s early, but the air is already warm, and the effort of carrying her sink has made sweat gather on her temple. “I’m glad Shemza’s taken care of it for you.”
Shemza pours away my water, then takes Grace’s sink from her, stacking it on top of mine, lifting the two as if they weigh nothing. Grace shakes her head, but she smiles.
“Wish I could make it look that easy. It’s going to be a while before these noodle arms are as strong as Khadija’s.”
“I suppose being a medic didn’t give you much cause for heavy lifting.”
“Not really, no. What did you do, Lorna? I don’t think we’ve ever spoken about it before.”
She gives me a guilty look, like this is an oversight on her part and not deliberate avoidance on mine. I try not to talk about my old life. The secret to lying is saying as little as possible. The more webs you spin around you, the easier it is to become tangled in them. Fortunately, I have an answer for this question.
“Laundry,” I say. “It involved a bit of lifting, but I’d say the thing it prepared me for best was the weather.”
So my workplace was the prison laundry, not the enormous factory-like laundries that operated on the bottom tier. Those laundries serviced mostly the upper tier restaurants and other industries - tablecloths, towels, bedsheets, that sort of thing. In prison, we laundered our towels, clothes, sheets, uniforms. Everything we used, we washed. But the basic parts of it were the same. Massive industrial washing machines, driers, rotary ironers and handheld ones for the delicate things. A hot, steamy room full of damp clothes and sweating workers. There’s enough truth for me to lean on if anyone’s ever boring enough to ask for more details.
Grace laughs. “Sally says the temperature will start dropping quite rapidly as the big rains approach. Can’t say I’m sad about that.”
There’s a queue at the fire, everyone waiting to get their sinks refilled with fresh water. It’s a big part of the daily routine, along with the patrols the warriors go on, one morning shift, one afternoon shift. Then there are the hunters, who leave at first light for their rounds, usually returning shortly after lunch with fresh kills to prep and then eat. There’s a definite rhythm to life amongst the tribe, and there’s something comforting about it.
I suppose because it reminds me a little of prison. A home away from home.
“Would you be free for a catch up today?” Grace says as we shuffle forward in the queue. “I’ve been catching up with all the girls - just having a talk about stuff. Medically and otherwise.”
I know she’s been doing this with the others, but I thought perhaps I’d got away with it on account of already having a lot of medical intervention with my arm. The thought of sitting down and talking about me doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. The less I can do that, the better.
“My arm’s okay,” I say. “Still stiff, but it gets better every day.”
“That’s great.” Grace smiles in her warm, motherly way. “It’s not the only thing you’ll have to contend with out here, though. I’d still like the chance to meet with you.”
I can’t exactly say no.
“Sure, when suits you?”
* * *
After Shemza puts my refilled sink in my hut, I get cleaned up and change into fresh clothes. The raskarrans have given us clothes they’d been keeping in storage since a sickness nearly wiped out their tribe years ago. They’re good at building waterproof homes, so everything was dry, but a little musty with dust and disuse. We’ve been here long enough now, though, that everything has been washed at the hot springs at least once, and the sweet, earthy smell of the soap root fills my nose as I pull on my top. It comes down to my mid thigh, but that’s not too much of an issue - it covers up how I have to tie a belt tight round the waist of my trousers to keep them up, the waistband folding over itself, bulging and lumpy. It doesn’t make for the best silhouette. Back on Earth, probably at some high society function, my mother’s cringing right now, like someone walked over her grave.
Raskarran clothes, even raskarran children’s clothes, are not designed for my frame. Or any of us human girls, really. Carrie’s working hard to make adjustments for everyone, putting her skills as a seamstress to good use, but there are a lot of us to get through, and I’m not rushing to be at the front of the queue. Let the others get their comforts first.
I head back out to the central fire again for the breakfast preparations. Hannah has been helping Sam with the food prep since we arrived in the village, but Sam left yesterday as well - off to another tribe with Maldek. It’s the first time Hannah’s had to deal with the cooking alone, and she looks petrified. Namson, the raskarran elder who’s been teaching the two of them how to prepare meals, pats her on the shoulder and gives her an encouraging smile.
“Anything I can do to help?” I ask.
We all usually muck in with the cooking. There are always things to slice and chop and peel - none of it requires much skill, or even fine motor control, which I’m distinctly lacking. Carrie takes a seat next to me just as Hannah hands me a bowl of tubers.
“You peel, I chop?” I say to her.
Carrie nods, smiling at me as she picks up a small, sharp bone knife and begins scraping away the thick skins of the vegetables. These have a slightly sweet taste, and can be mashed up into something a bit like porridge, fresh fruit and nuts sprinkled over the top of them to make a delicious breakfast. It’s a simple enough meal to prepare, but the volume of tubers that need peeling and boiling up to feed everyone necessitates a little production line. Khadija takes the next bowl, Liv the one after, each of the girls coming to help as soon as they’re dressed and ready for the day.
The architects of the tier system said that everybody finds their level. That the people at the top rise there because they are the best, and the people at the bottom stay on that level because they haven’t got the skills or the inclination to contribute to society in a more meaningful way. When brilliant people have children with brilliant people, the result is a brilliant child. When lazy idiots have children with lazy idiots, the next generation will also be lazy idiots, and therefore, our stratified society was only natural. A result of evolution, if you will.
I believed it. I believed it because my parents believed it, and they believed it because their parents believed it, and so on. Generations of people who never thought to ask questions, because none of us really wanted to know.
Because if we looked too closely, we’d see it for the bullshit it always was. Realise how fragile our own positions were. My top tier fellows had to believe they deserved to be where they were, because if they didn’t, it meant acknowledging that it was only good luck and someone’s good graces that held them in place. That they weren’t beneficiaries of Mercenia’s systems - just more cogs in its machine.
I hate it. I hate that I used to believe those things about bottom tier workers. People like the girls here. Like Grace, who would have helped me carry my sink just because I couldn’t do it. Like Liv, who could easily use her position as Gregar’s mate to get out of menial tasks like peeling vegetables, but doesn’t. Wouldn’t.
I hate it worse that I think they might forgive me. For being a top tier girl, for my ignorance. But questions would follow about how I ended up here. Questions I have no good answers for.
They can never know. They can never know the truth of why I’m here with them. There are no prisons in the village. Everyone has to pull their weight to make sure the village thrives. They can’t afford the burden of locking me up. Feeding me. If anyone ever found out, it would mean exile.
A death sentence.
So I have to lie to them about everything.
I hate that most of all.
My hands start to tremble, my knife slipping, nicking my finger. I hiss as the pain follows a moment later, dark red blood blooming out of the slice. Stark against my pale skin. The sight of it makes me tremble harder, and I know I’m about to tip into panic. I have to get up, have to move.
“Cut myself,” I say to Carrie. “Just going to clean it up. Sorry.”
She waves me off. Before I’m even out of the circle of food prep, Molly’s slotted in to take my place, picking up the knife and slicing with a much quicker, neater hand than I can manage.
I stagger back towards my hut, trying to keep my breaths even, drawing the air right into the bottom of my lungs. When I reach my door, I throw it open, then slam it shut behind me, collapsing in a pile the moment I’m hidden from view.
My lungs snatch at the air as if there isn’t enough of it. I drop my head between my knees to stop myself from passing out and try to force my breathing to slow. My vision goes tunnelled, and when I try to blink it away, images flash before my eyes. The dead-eyed birds in the aviary. Robert standing at the altar. My hands covered in blood.
A buzzing starts in my ears, and I know in a moment, they’ll start to echo with the chants of the people who lined up outside my court hearing - words firing at me out of my memory like bullets.
I press my hands over my ears, as if that will stop the sound coming from inside my head. I don’t want to hear it. Don’t want my panic to consume me so fully that I can’t break out of it.
Five things, I hear Rosa say - clear as if she were in the room with me. Remember your five things.
Five things I can see.
It’s hard. My tunnel vision doesn’t give me much scope. But I suck another breath into my lungs, look for things one at a time.
The boots on my feet that the quiet warrior, Endzoh, made for me, so I didn’t have to wear the heavy Mercenia boots anymore.
The trousers I’ve had to roll up several times so they don’t drag on the floor when I wear them.
The smooth wooden planks that make the floor of my hut. I wonder how the raskarrans get floors so perfect without machinery or advanced tools. Many generations of feet walking over them, perhaps.
The tips of my blonde hair hanging down in front of me.
Dark patches on the floor where I must have dripped some water earlier.
Four things I can touch.
I run my fingers over the floor, my boots, my trousers, then twine a lock of my hair around my fingers. Let it tickle over my skin. My head swims a little, but my breathing is slower, my heart not racing so fast.
Three things I can hear.
Exuberant raskarran voices calling to each other. The crackle of the central fire burning. Birdsong.
I smile. It’s my favourite thing about this place. I can always hear birdsong.
Two things I can smell.
The woodsy scent of the hut. I lift my top to my nose, breathe in the smell of the soap root again.
One thing I can taste.
I swipe my tongue across my upper lip. Taste the salty tang of sweat.
What would you do if you had your freedom?That was the question. I hear it now in Rosa’s purring voice, repeating it back to whichever girl just asked her, buying herself some time to think of a new, lurid scenario.
I’m starting to think it was the wrong question. If I could ask the women of the Correctional Facility - the Deviants, as we sometimes jokingly referred to ourselves - any question now, I’d ask them this:
How do you become free?
Because I escaped life imprisonment, escaped my home planet, crash landed somewhere Mercenia doesn’t even exist, and I’m still not truly free.
I’m starting to think I never will be.