The hall beyond was a mess of flame and smoke. My skin tingled as if mint had been slathered on it, but the fire had no other effect. The centipede’s blood seemed to have fortified me against it. Anunnaki corpses littered the ground alongside centipede’s mangled bodies. Panic rose in my chest, but I beat it back with calm resolve, thinking back to the high school scrapes I’d gotten into. Back then, having a clear head had been the most important thing about winning – that, and fighting dirty. The flesh traders’ weaknesses were their eyes – all I had to do was puncture those to have the advantage.
I could see how the flesh traders had overtaken the ship. Their sheer numbers, according to their carcasses, were overwhelming. A discarded stun gun lay on the ground by a slender centipede. I picked it up for an extra measure of defense. I came to the heartwood hall and hid behind the entrance, listening for the presence of flesh traders. Screeching voices came from inside:
“Where is the human? Ajirin should have found her by now. She’s the reason we boarded the ship. Without her, the market value of our flesh is nothing. We’ll be in debt to our supplier.”
One of them overturned something – a table? – in anger.
“Ajirin is unresponsive. We should send more Brood into the photosynthesis chamber at once. Brood stronger than Ajirin and his men.”
“Ajirin was the strongest we have.”
“Rot Father damn you, I’ll have to do this myself, won’t I? Fine. I will go there to capture her and the royalty. Then we must leave. This ship’s life support will run out soon.”
“Yes, Queen Mother. I will prepare our craft for departure.”
The flurry of footsteps drew close. I braced myself, clinging to the shadows of a burnt leaf. In stepped what could best be described as the worst parts of a praying mantis and a wasp. The creature towered over me, eight-limbed, with mighty pincers, a slender thorax, probing antennae, and a cruel stinger. I held my breath, praying not to be noticed.
Its antennae flicked my way, and its orb-like eyes zeroed in on me. I cursed under my breath, trying to disappear into the wall. No such luck. My heart ricocheted off my chest as it gnashed its mandible.
“You’re a rare thing, aren’t you?” the commander said. “Warm-blooded, four-limbed, with a calcareous skeleton and barely any height about you. How exquisite.”
I backed away, holding my balled fists up in a blocking position. The commander was at least ten feet tall, over twice my height.
The commander pushed a proboscis through its mandible and tasted my neck. I fired my stun gun at it, but its exoskeleton simply dented. The commander was too heavy for the impact to have any greater effect. The commander rubbed its back legs together like a fiddle, creating a cricket sound that resembled laughter.
“You’re amusing. Now put the gun down. I want no harm to come to you.”
I fired another ineffective shot.
The commander easily overpowered me, wrestling me into a headlock and wrenching the stun gun from me. She – at least the voice sounded like a she, high-pitched and feminine, but I couldn’t really tell – was careful not to bruise me. I flailed to no avail. The commander chirped and forced me into the heartwood hall, where a host of centipede Brood were gathered. One was feasting on what looked like Gishkim’s corpse. I flinched.
The centipedes shrieked at the sight of me, rattling their pincers on the floor. A pair of them entered after us, carrying the limp bodies of Enki and Ishtar.
Before I could react, the commander lowered her stinger against my back. She pierced me with the needle tip, and I felt something cold slide into my veins. My vision grew hazy, my limbs weakened, and soon, everything was black.
Sleep-grit glued my eyes shut. I blinked slow, prying my eyelids open. A cold ocean sloshed inside me. I groaned, bruises on my limbs smarting as I attempted to collect my bearings: as far as I knew, I’d been abducted by aliens from a B-horror movie, turned into the xenolinguist from Star Trek, and propositioned for kinky alien sex by my roommate. My life was turning into something from Stranger in a Strange Land meets space pirates. I wasn’t even scared. Just angry.
My vision focused, revealing a dim, metallic room where I was strapped to the wall by cold chains. Ishtar was shackled beside me, her head wound covered by a gauzy substance that looked like spider webs. Other sheath class Anunnaki hung beside us in the darkness of the circular room.
I struggled to move.
“Ishtar, are you okay?”
Her single eye opened to a slit. “Ziggi,” she murmured. Her shoulder tentacles threaded through the air. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting the Brood. I only had enough venom to take out one. And now we’re here on this godforsaken ship because of my father’s folly. Sending us on this mission with an indefensible ship was a death wish.”
I balled my hands into fists. “It’s not your fault. I couldn’t beat them either. There was one that must have been ten feet tall. She overpowered me in an instant.”
“Ten feet tall?” Ishtar’s skin fluoresced. “Must have been Ajaxas. She’s the Queen Mother of the Brood. Sterile and cold as a gun. The Brood’s females die in childbirth, all except their Queens, who rule over the Brood with iron claws.”
“What a bitch”
“Ziggi? You smell different.”
I sniffed hard, detecting nothing but my sweat and the odor of moist Anunnaki flesh.
Ishtar’s muscles rippled under her skin as she struggled against her fetters. “Did you put Brood hemolymph into your biogauge?”
My eyes widened. “If that was its blood, then yeah – I couldn’t interrogate the wounded one without speaking his language.”
Ishtar sighed. “The improper dosage of hemolymph could have killed you – but I suppose you had no choice.”
I peered into the darkness of the room, not seeing my roommate. “Where’s Enki?”
“The Brood separated us by gender to take inventory of our organs. Those of us with the most unique physiologies – you, me, my brother, and Ratatosk – will be sold at the highest price to god knows whom or what. Into a harem, into fighting rings, into labs – there’s no telling where we’ll go.”
Ishtar spat venom onto the floor. “If only I had a biomorph that was useful – I could change into something more machine than flesh. But all I have is this form – DNA access to other species is highly restricted, and Enki had to jump through a plethora of hoops to get approved to morph into a human. That form will be useless against the Brood.”
“So basically, we’re screwed.”
“In a word, yes. The Brood are good at covering their tracks, and my father’s resources are already spread thin trying to suppress the axonal class. What little military he can spare for our rescue will be few and far between.”
A cold light flared on at the center of the sloping ceiling. A metallic buzzing like a horde of robotic bees grew as the light illuminated the room. The room was vast, with the entire female population of the Anunnaki ship suspended from the walls.
All except one. At the center of the room was a shining table where a sheath class Anunnaki had been painstakingly taken apart, her strange organs pinned to a dissection board like a butterfly collector arranging his prizes.
Silvery filaments – the mutilated Anunnaki’s neural matter – writhed like boiling spaghetti, and a single large, black eye twitched in a kind of vat. Her severed antennae perked towards us, and her transparent skin struggled below its pins.
A scream died in my throat.
“I thought they were selling us into slavery,” I said. “Why would they do that?”
Ishtar gave a rough laugh. “To see how much the sheath class will fetch at market. Most will be sold for food – we’re considered an aphrodisiac. The outlaws of the Milky Way have translated their hatred of Anunnaki into a taste for our flesh.”
I turned my head away.
The buzzing grew louder.
Ishtar narrowed her eye. “Someone’s coming.”
A door on the far wall opened. In stepped Ajaxas. She clacked her scissor pincers together and opened her mandible, revealing that disgustingly long proboscis. It flicked out to taste the air.
“I trust that you’re comfortable, your highness,” said Ajaxas. “The Brood offer only the best to Anunnaki royalty.”
“Spare me your sarcasm,” Ishtar said. “What will it take for you to free us? Precious minerals? More mercenaries than could fill a planet? Ships? Weapons? On my honor as Abzu’s daughter, I can promise you that and more. Keep the sheath class. It’s my brother, me, and the girl that walk free in exchange for untold wealth.”
Ajaxas fiddled her hind legs together to produce a cricket-like sound – laughter. “Abzu has no honor. You expect me to believe that you or your father will keep your words, after your race ran my kind off our planet under the false pretenses? I still remember the flames of the Burrow when I was a girl. Your father’s fury rained down on my sweet Worm Mother’s earth. The liberation of our prey destroyed our planet and made us refugees.”
Ishtar bared her sharp teeth. “You can’t blame me for my father’s misdeeds.”
Ajaxas fiddled her legs together. “We are our parent’s failings. Anunnaki especially so. You’re no more protectors of the weak than you are preservers of order. If your kind had any understanding of balance, you would have let the Brood be. You pride yourselves on your knowledge, but the truth is Anunnaki are only good for fucking and eating. No, I will not make a bargain with you. Not when you will fetch such a handsome price. I have Brood to feed.”
“You’re throwing away a ripe opportunity. At least think on it,” Ishtar said, nictating membrane drawing halfway shut across her eye.
Ajaxas drew closer, idly stroking the Anunnaki eyeball in its vat. “Stubborn, aren’t you? Spoiled too. No, I think I will sell you to the highest bidder, who, evidently, is on the ship now. Come in, Seere.”
Ishtar shouted, struggling against her chains.
Her protests were useless. In strode a red-skinned, towering alien, who I could only imagine as male. Seere had horns on his sloping head, with a thick mane of black hair cascading down his back. He was shaped like a centaur, with four legs, two arms, and a pronged tail. A trio of eyes shone like flecks of obsidian on his brow. His upper half was practically human, and downright demonic. I felt like I had stumbled into a Hieronymus Bosch painting. I half-expected Seere to be holding a pitchfork full of hot coals.
Instead of being scared witless, a kind of cool fascination numbed my mind. So this was my new captor. Something off the cover of a death metal album cover. At least he wasn’t Jabba the Hut.
Seere nodded at me, silent, and Ajaxas came to my side. She pressed her pincers to my chains and they unlocked. I fell to the floor, red marks on my skin where my bonds had held me. I didn’t dare look up.
“Touch her and I’ll end you,” Ishtar hissed.
Ajaxas fiddled her hind legs, laughing. She guided me to my feet. I rose, my eyes downcast. Ajaxas twirled me around as if I were a jewel on an auction block.
“You can smell the Anunnaki prince’s imprint on her. She is his intended mate,” Ajaxas said. “Look at her exquisite limbs, appreciate her delicate physiology. This girl is a human at her physical peak. You will find no other like her for light years.”
Seere ran a hand through his mane and stepped closer, his hooves clacking on the cold metallic floor. He squinted with charcoal eyes, then tilted his head like a bird.
Ajaxas continued: “My asking price is a hundred neurobytes.”
Seere cantered over. I stared intently at his legs. His skin shimmered with scales, like a dragon. As Spike would say, Seere was metal as fuck.
Seere cupped my face gently in his hot hands and lifted my gaze to his. His eyes narrowed. I felt like a fish on a hook.
Seere made a guttural sound, then looked to the Brood’s Queen Mother. Ajaxas flicked her proboscis to my lower back. Seere followed Ajaxas’ motions, clasping the back of my shirt and lifting it ever so slightly to inspect my biogauge. He leaned over and let out a soft sound when his eyes met the socket in my back. He gingerly prodded it with a strangely muscled finger, and I shuddered.
Seere smiled. He released my face from his grip and I stood still, pinned like a butterfly by his gaze.
Seere lifted his hand to his mouth and bit his finger. Black blood welled up from his wound. I moved back in disgust, but he stilled me, pressing the bloody finger to my biogauge. Just as it had absorbed Ajirin’s blood, the socket in my back made a sucking sound, lapping up the blood like a vampire.
“No!” Ishtar said. She struggled against the chains, but Ajaxas stung her. Ishtar fell limp as Ajaxas’s poison spread through her, turning her flesh purple. Her frills fell limp.
I doubled over as my stomach knotted. A fire spread through my skin, like a million bee stings. I puked up the worms I had eaten for breakfast.
Seere hoisted me up and wiped the vomit from my lip. After the brutal transfusion, I understood his language, half-purr, half-roar that it was: “You drive a hard bargain, Ajaxas. I will take the Anunnaki royalty, doubtless, but this human – she seems to have a weak constitution. What are her talents? How can I possibly use her? She will break like a stick at the slightest mishandling.”
Ajaxas blinked her compound eyes hard. “Without her, the Anunnaki prince will die.”
Seere stomped his hoof on the floor. “Fair enough. Perhaps she has abilities that are not yet apparent. The Anunnaki prince would have been drawn to her for a reason.”
“Exactly,” Ajaxas said.
Seere placed his hand on my shoulder and ran his oddly formed fingers down my arm. He closed his three burning eyes and inhaled deeply. “You have a fighting spirit, don’t you? I can smell it on your skin – the sweat, the blood. Ajaxas tells me you killed her best scout. My question is, how could a creature as fragile as you pose a threat to the Brood?”
His grip on my arm was like a vise. I automatically flexed, which prompted him to smile. “I could snap you in two with the slightest effort. And yet, you would struggle to the last minute. I admire that.”
“Let go of me,” I said, shrugging Seere’s hand from my arm. “You’re right. I took out Ajirin. But what do you know about humans? I could be lethal. I know tai chi. Bet you don’t know what that is.”
Seere gave a rough laugh. “You’re right, I don’t. You may be lethal, but your skills are untested. Which is why I’ll only buy her at half-price, Ajaxas.”
Ajaxas clicked her mandible.
Seere looked at me. “I hope you are lethal. You’ll expire quickly if you’re not.”
It was like his eyes were stakes. I crossed my arms and wished for more substantial clothes than the gossamer skirt and shirt the Anunnaki had given me.
Seere motioned for someone behind him to step forth. Another centuarine alien, this one a head and shoulders shorter than my newest captor, trotted forward. She – I assumed by the swell of her breasts – was slenderer than Seere, and seemed to have duller scales than him, the way female cardinals are brown compared to their mate’s red.
The attendant held a coral metallic disc that seemed to have been etched in curling patterns with a laser. Ajaxas’s compound eyes widened at the sight of it. The Queen Mother extended her pincers to hold the pink circle gingerly.
“The neurobytes have the requested information on Nibiru’s capital?” Ajaxas said.
Seere rumbled with laughter. “Hell-bent on revenge as always, aren’t you? Yes, they do. That information was costly, so keep it well-guarded.” He appraised me. “What is your name?”
“You wouldn’t be able to pronounce it.”
Seere stomped a hoof, seemingly entertained. It was like he liked to watch me squirm. “I’ll call you Worm.” He motioned to my barfed-up breakfast of annelids, then smirked with his muzzle. “It appears Anunnaki food does not agree with you. I promise you will dine much better on Gehenna. My servants feast on only the finest minerals, the most purified sunlight.”
Sunshine? Rocks? “Sounds appetizing.”
Seere smiled. “You will need to keep up your strength, Worm, for I intend to test the mettle of the human who slayed Ajirin.”
“You have made a wise purchase,” said Ajaxas. “Look at her hair. It is the color of neurobytes. She will bring you untold wealth.”
Seere smirked. “You always knew how to oversell a product.”
Ajaxas looked down at the neurobyte disc in her pincers. Her compound eyes shone like a green bottle fly’s back. “We should not linger. I must take the rest of the Anunnaki to market,” Ajaxas said.
Seere motioned for his silent attendant, who took Ishtar’s limp body down from her shackles. Ishtar looked desiccated, like a starfish out of water. Her tentacles were a ghostly lavender, sign of Ajaxas’ spreading poison. Though the attendant was thin and lacked Seere’s muscle, she carried Ishtar with ease.
Seere smiled, showing fangs that ringed his mouth like a lamprey. “Be careful, Vassago. She’s a princess, after all.” His gentle purr was mocking. “Come, Worm. Don’t make me carry you too.”