Chapter 2: Something Laughable
Her sister is shaking her waking form. The throbbing ache in her head barely allows her eyes to open. The first thing she notices is the smell. It is a rank odor mixed of human excrement, sweat, iron, and electricity. The ground her body lays upon is cold and grimy. She realizes she wears nothing but her undergarments. "Aeureilia!" She rises suddenly but her body jerks back down. Her wrists and ankles are shackled. She looks at her sister.
Aeureilia is crying. "Shaia, we've been captured. We're in a slave ship."
Shaia looks around her. It is dark, but she can still see that the chamber is filled with chain-bound women. Many are crying. Many are lifeless. Few still have not wakened. The majority of these women are not of her planet. Some are dirtier than others. Perhaps they have been on the ship longer, for their faces bear no traces of hope. "What happened?" she asks but already knows the answer. She hears her sister explain that the art exhibition was but a trap. Over five hundred Imberian citizens were captured that day, and they were apparently the last of the batch. Aeureilia begins to sob as she blames herself for her foolishness. Palpable is her guilt, fear, and shame; but Shaia does not see it. Her mind is already setting on an escape. There must be a way. The possibility that she might become one of those forsaken women shook her. No, not her. Not her sister. She had to get home to mother. "I will get us out of here." Her voice is sure and adamant.
Aeureilia has thought the same, yet she is more practical when it comes to actions and consequences. "But how?"
The elder sister looks around. There are no windows and only one door in the compartment. A thick metal door with a thick metal bolt. This door promises no escape. But Shaia is hopeful.
Many hours pass. Possibly a day. Shaia still keeps her eye on that door. She is waiting. For what, she is not sure. When it finally opens, a large man with a large pot enters the chamber. He begins to walk about the room. The women fear him, yet they inch to him. Their hands reach out, pushing against each other in desperation. When a portion of sludge is scooped in their hands, they shrink back and devour it possessively. The substance in which the meal is made of and the manner in which the women eat repulse Shaia. Regardless, she knows she must eat lest she loses the opportunity to escape on account of a weak body and dull mind. The man moves closer to the sisters. Aeureilia rises to her knees. Watching her sister succumb to this pitiful resort pains our heroine. She must be hungry. The elder let the younger get her portion first. Aeureilia's eyes follow the ladle from the pot to her hands. She is so grateful for food that she even says thank you to the man. As she brings the gruel to her mouth, the woman beside her grabs her arms and tries to steal her portion. Aeureilia shrieks and begins to eat quickly. She feels the woman lick her hands and she drops her food in shock. The woman falls to her hands and knees and eats the remainders from the floor. Shaia is angered by this, but it is her turn to receive her portion. She feels the slimy substance dumped into her hands. Another woman grabs her from behind and Shaia strikes her face with her elbow. She is sorry for her violence, but as much as the woman could not restrain her acts from starvation, nor could Shaia for the protection of her family.
"Eat," she says to Aeureilia when she is sure they are not to be bothered.
"What about you?"
"I'm not hungry."
The younger sister hesitates for a moment, then begins to eat out of her sister's hands. Aeureilia's head is bent and for that Shaia is grateful, for she did not want her tears to be seen.
Several days have passed now. The sisters do not exchange words. They only hold onto each other's hand for comfort. Shaia sits with her knees to her chest, her chin resting on her arm wrapped around them. The vivacity in her blue eyes is gone. Hope is fading.
The ship slows to a stop. The women cry excitedly. "Where are we?" "Have we stopped?" "What is to become of us now?"
Hope returns to Shaia. At one point the shackles will be removed, and then she will grab Aeureilia and run. Somehow . . . somehow they were going to get home.
"Shaia," Aeureilia whispers, "What do you think will happen to us?"
"I don't know."
'So am I,' thinks the sister, but she dares not say it. "It's alright. As long as we're together, we'll be alright." She squeezes her sister's hand. Now, she waits for the doors to open. To her, that door represents the future, hope, opportunity. Once out of this room and free of these chains, she can devise a plan of escape. So she waits. And waits. She waits for hours and eventually falls asleep.
Shaia wakes to the sound of a loud bolt. The door opens. Men carry in unconscious women who are dropped and fettered. One comments that the women reek and resemble wild animals. Another man carries a woman and drops her to the ground as though he would garbage. She apparently feigned unconsciousness. Upon impact, she leaps to her feet and runs to the door. She is screaming deliriously until a shot is fired to her temple. Her dead body crumples to the floor.
Shaia hears Aeureilia coughing. She turns to her and sees she is vomiting. Shaia's hand shakes as she rubs her sister's back.
The bolted door unlocks again. A man walks in and orders everyone to rise. The fetters are disconnected from their rods, allowing the women to stand while bound still. The simple task is difficult. Not having stood in uncountable hours, their joints are stiff, their muscles weak. Shaia gasps at the pain of straightening her knees. It feels as though her bones are grinding against each other in protest. She helps Aeureilia as best as she can then stands forward. The man commands the women to walk, instructing each row of their turn. When the sisters' line is called, they hobble forward towards the open door. Their movements are slow and awkward, but Shaia focuses only on getting out. There is light. There is chance. When the captives reach the door to a hallway, they cannot help themselves but make gasps of relief from the fresh air.
"Silence!" a guard down the hall yells. He pushes a button.
The shackles electrify the women. They scream in shock. The smaller women fall to the floor, Shaia included. She feels Aeureilia's trembling hands pull on her arm. She rises.
The women are led off of the ship into another building. They are taken into a foyer, bare and dissolute. Men with guns border the area. The shackles are removed and collected. They are told to remain in rows. Ten women at a time are called into a room. Before entry, they are ordered to remove all garments. New ones would be given later, so they are told. It is Shaia's turn. She numbly walks into the appointed room. She sees ten women each behind a chair. Their faces are grim and stern. On the floor around each chair is a pile of hair. Apprehension seizes her. The procedure of removing parasites is no secret. She sits down. She hears the buzz of a shaver from behind. Her head is roughly jerked back. The process begins. An absent mirror does not stop Shaia from seeing whatever pulchritude she had abducted. Not just the hair of her head, but her eyebrows, eyelashes, and nether regions are also removed.
The next room she enters is tiled. There are spigots all along the walls and the ceiling. A large glass window occupies one side. On the other side of that window is a corridor where the armed men watch. Their eyes violate the women to a degree of shame that Shaia can barely tolerate. With futile efforts, she shields her body with her arms.
The following group enters the room. Her method of differentiating Aeureilia from the other bald women is by looking for a birthmark on the left shoulder blade. Shaia slowly approaches her. At first Aeureilia does not recognize her own sister. She sees only pale skin and large eyes. Blue eyes. Then her bottom lip quivers and she touches the elder sister's shaven head. "Shaia . . ." She begins to cry.
Again they are waiting for something they know not of. They stand shivering with their backs to the window. An odd hiss is heard. Suddenly a chemical is sprayed from all directions. It stings the skin though is tolerable to bear. Shaia realizes that they are being disinfected. After the women are thoroughly drenched with the solvent, they are taken to a communal shower where they are commanded to wash themselves. The water smells sulphuric and the pressure is weak, but Shaia is grateful to be clean.
The given garments are of a paltry synthetic material resembling a potato sack and as rough as burlap. The shape is rectangular with holes for the head, arms, and legs. Afterwards they are taken to a large hall filled with benched tables. They are to be fed. Differing from the ship, the women are given small bowls and spoons. The gruel, though, is the same. The woman serving Shaia's table bears a very serious expression. Her thin hair is pulled back into a tight knot. Her arms are thick and strong. The romantic, the hopeful parts of our heroine believe the server's eyes to possess some sort of compassion. She thinks the robust woman almost looked sorry for the captives, and perhaps sorry for her position. She ladles a portion into Shaia's bowl. Hope, courage, and foolery succumbs the girl. She grabs the woman's wrist. Her sapphire eyes are imploring and pathetic. "Please. Help me."
The woman's stoic gaze remains on hers for a moment. Without warning she backhands Shaia's face, the brunt so hard she falls from her seat. Surprisingly, nobody noticed the abuse. Or perhaps they ignored it. The woman leans in towards the feeble youth, her voice softer than her blow. "Remember that so you daren't repeat it. For your sake."
The chamber is so dark one cannot see her own hand. Coldness penetrates the shoddy burlap as though it was not there. The sisters shiver as they try to sleep. Aeureilia whispers to her sister. "Shaia?" She is so careful not to get caught that her whisper is not audible. She tries again. "Shaia?"
"Yes, Aeureilia?" For a while Shaia hears nothing. Then she hears a soft shuddering inhalation. Her sister is crying.
Shaia wraps her arm around Aeureilia. "Shh. You mustn't blame yourself. I don't."
"How can you not?"
"How can I blame you for something unforeseeable and unintentional? But hush, we mustn't speak." The elder sister's petting comforted the younger.
"Shaia. I'm worried about mother. She must be dying of heartache."
"I will get us home."
"How? Your attempts may get you killed."
"I'd rather die than be a slave."
"Don't say such words, Shaia. We must live. There is a future in living." A humble life does not equivocate a spirit without pride. Having a master and no freedom does not sit well with the elder sister. Aeureilia continues. "I know I am not in any position to offer solace when it is due to my shortcoming that we are in this situation – please don't argue – but we must not prove ourselves hopeless by being rebellious. If we accept our status and are diligent, humble servants, who knows what opportunities may come to us? We may even have a kind master who will free us."
This admonition is much to digest for Shaia. She ponders over the words. Later, she will understand their significance. Her hold on Aeureilia tightens. "I promise I will do my best."
"So will I."
"But that does not mean I will not get us home. Though I promise no acts of rebellion or desertion. I will be good for our welfare."
"I, too, won't disappoint you."
"I'm just glad we'll be together. I don't think I can bear this alone."
"Try to sleep now."
The women are lined up against a wall. Not long after, a suave gentleman stands before them. He is tall, handsome and opulently dressed.
"It is him," Aeureilia says in a whisper's whisper, and Shaia knows that she speaks of the 'customer'.
"Good morning," he says. "I understand you went through a harsh journey, physically and emotionally. Worry not of your appearances. Hair grows back in due time. As for the rest of your journey, you are almost to arrive at your final destination. At least concerning this company." He takes two steps forward. "Now, when I say to you, 'left', you are to go the left hall. When I say to you, 'right', you are to go the right hall. You are dismissed immediately after I assign you." He begins with the first woman. "Right." The next. "Right. Left. Right . . ."
Discernment falls upon Shaia. The attractive women were being sent to the left. The rest to the right. Her heart is pounding. She is filled with perturbation. For the first time in her life she wishes that Nature bestowed her a sharper nose, higher cheekbones, longer legs, delicate fingers . . . The man reaches Aeureilia. "Left." The sister walks slowly, cautiously. Stopping at Shaia, the man pauses. He surveys her body from head to toe and then back up. He tips up her chin with his thumb. After a moment he says, "Right."
"NO!" The scream is outlet from Aeureilia. She runs back to Shaia and grabs her form. The sisters' hold each other with vise grips. The elder begs the man for them to be taken together, that they not be separated. Two men rush in to pull the sisters apart. Lack of food and rest do not hinder the Kaim sisters' sudden strength. Aeureilia is desperate. She begins to weep. "No . . . no, no!"
"Please don't separate us." Shaia keeps her eyes on the gentleman. She tries to sound calm and reasonable but tears are streaming down her face. "Please. Please, we are family. Have mercy on us, please." The gentleman returns her look with indifference. He orders the men to take them away. "No! You mustn't!"
Aeureilia is losing her grip. Her nails leave red trails on her sister's arm. "Don't let go, Shaia! Don't let me go!"
"Please –" They grip each other's hands.
"– have mercy, please."
"Don't leave me!"
"I'll find you, Aeureilia, I swear it!" They are separated.
They shout each other's names until they are forcibly silenced. Shaia can no longer see or hear her sister. She weeps bitterly as the guard discards her onto the floor.