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Slavers of Aghara-Penthay

2022-05-24 00:00:05

Slavers of Aghara-Penthay

Olga Anastasia

To my muses – Werner H, Humilator, Brian S: I hope this pleases you. Olga. x

1 – MIA

When an emergency call comes to the university and it’s summoning me to The Fortress, I sink straight into despair. It’s just as I’ve long feared. There is one reason anyone at that place would want to see me, and only one reason for the nightmares. Something has happened to my precious Gara.

Of course they do not tell me that over a public holo-screen. I’m pulled from a lecture and into the privacy of the faculty office to take the call. A junior officer is at the other end of the line. She simply asks: “You’re Lara?” and states: “Please come urgently to The Fortress. Red Duchess needs to see you.”

Red Duchess. Intelligence staff are known by only by code names, so although the woman has a real name, my sister has only ever referred to her commanding officer as “Red Duchess”. And Red Duchess wouldn’t want to see me for any happy reason.

I didn’t want Gara to join the Gaianesian military. It’s dangerous work. As identical twins, we always were particularly close, and selfishly I didn’t want to lose her.

But Gara always was willful, and there is a war on.

So she took up arms for our planet’s cause, her sharp mind and healthy body quickly attracting the attention of the intelligence department. For my part, I grew up more interested in science that matriotism, so when I turned eighteen I only completed the bare minimum mandatory military service, working in engineering on Vengeful Angel, one of the corvettes in our space fleet, before beginning to study astrophysics at Gaianesia’s most prestigious university.

That was two years ago. Gara and I are twenty three, in the calculation of the galactic standard year.

Don’t let her be harmed, I pray.

I feel in my blood that she’s still alive – some twins have a psychic connection and I’d have somehow known if she were dead, but the thread joining us across time and space also tells me that something is terribly wrong.

Gara never talks about her work, but I’ve picked up enough hints know it’s usually offworld, and dangerous. Sometimes she returns home for planet leave with a haunted look in her eyes. When we share the same bed she rolls in her sleep to lie against me, instinctively seeking the reassurance we gain from physical contact. When she’s away on missions, the bad dreams come.

For example, only this morning I woke from a nightmare where a huge dark shape loomed over me, and there was a terrible pain stabbing into my pelvis. I cried out, but the bed was empty and I was alone.

The summons leaves me sick with dread, and imagining all kind of scenarios that might have happened. At the university I gather my books and data-pads and make my way to the shuttle station, ready to make the short flight to the center of Gaianesia’s capital – Solar City.

There are no males attending university, but I see my first drone in the marbled corridor, mopping the floor. He does not look up at me, of course. Drones have their concerns, women have ours.

Inside the rooms of learning we can forget the dangers from space, but by the university’s palatial entrance evidence of the war resumes – a vast flack cannon, half the height of the towering building, with three women in the tight jumpsuits of the gunnery corps killing their hours of sentry duty by playing cards.

It must be a boring job for them - there’s not been a raid for several months, but at least it’s a beautiful warm day outside. In the distance behind them a heavy ship is climbing slowly to orbit – a freighter of some kind - the magnesium-white flare of its gravity drives bright even against the blue sky.

I take out my holo-communicator and try to patch through to Gara, but there is no connection. Not surprising. She never carries it with her when she’s on a mission. Worrying anyway, I continue towards the station.

The shuttle departs from a commercial zone, located a short walk from the university gates. There are more drone-males serving here – males working in the convenience stores; cleaning; selling tickets at the shuttle port. All tasks that suit their abilities and fulfill their lives. As with all the drones, the men look at me with expressions that are polite, but do not show sexual interest.

I purchase my ticket and can turn my thoughts back to Gara. Please be okay, Gara! Just this once, let my twin sense be wrong and let the terrible dreams be a coincidence.

I catch a sight of my reflection in the marble façade of a building. My perfectly symmetrical features show my anxiety. It is often claimed that Gara, like me, is an exceptionally beautiful female, but neither she nor I give our looks much consideration. Such matters are only a matter of great pride to our mother. Three years ago mother secretly sent an application form in our names to Miss Gaianesia, and the first thing we knew about it was when we were contacted to appear on the show. We declined of course. I don’t know what she was thinking. It would hardly do for Gara to have such publicity. Although the current White Queen may once have been a Miss Gaianesia, that was before she joined the struggle.

I pause to stare at my face. While our looks are unimportant, if she’s been scarred it would be a pity. I don’t sense that’s the case – it doesn’t match the nightmares - but some injury to her lower body would explain the repeating phantom pelvic pains.

The shuttle port is busy – a buzz of bright and bubbly student women chatting, and also diligent drone-males about their tasks. Seeing life continue as normal eases my fears a little. I note with satisfaction that the fashion for women growing their hair is continuing to spread. Defying the inherent risks, more than half the student girls around me have rejected the safer and more practical buzz-cut that is typical in older generation of Gaianesian women, i.e. they who served during less successful years at the battle front. I take it as a good sign – that in spite of the constant threats from our nearest planetary neighbors on Harka-Ringworld, and the danger to a Gaianesian female in having long hair, these girls feel secure enough to adopt the galactic fashion of the human women.

I too am prone to the same vanities as my comrades. Gara and I wear our hair particularly long, our glossy dark brunette color prized among Gaianesians as much as it is among the humans. We don’t just do it for the appearance - I like the sensation of feeling the perfectly straight strands brush against the curves of my buttocks when I’m nude.

In the years when we were still a family, Gara and I could spend hours doing nothing but brushing each other’s hair, enjoying the euphoric calm this would produce with its warm tingling at the most intimate place between our legs – a tingling that told us we were ending our time as children and we had become women.

That was until our mother discovered us in the act, and forbad us participating in such demeaning behavior. Red-faced with fury, she lectured that Gaianesian women had not fought so hard for freedom from our own males and the Harkens for us to start acting like slaves.

Mother… I smile sadly as I think of her. Gara was always her favorite, even though the two of us are so similar. It’s perhaps a mercy that the ship carrying my mother on a routine mission to Calico was vaporized – an instant of freakish bad luck manifested as friendly fire from our own ground defenses. If mother were alive today she’d have been distraught by… well… whatever is going on with Gara.

Gara, I silently shout to the blue sky. Where are you? Not knowing is the worst part.

I pass a giant screen above the concourse carrying live news feeds from across the galaxy. They would be unlikely to publish news relevant to an intelligence operative, but I glance at the board anyway. Nothing there about space disasters, or battles with the Harkens or Aghara-Penthay. The news is still dominated by the political scandal raging between our leader President Dolan, and the male rights campaigner Ilona Minani.

Ilona’s party believe we should stop dosing the drones and let them take a place in society as do human males. That is not scandalous in itself – equality campaigners have agitated since the first White Queen. What’s filling the tabloids is President Dolan’s allegation that Ilona has gone further than that, and indulged in the most shameful act possible from a woman in our society – sexual submission to a male.

Ilona spent two years on the vice planet of Merlon – a world controlled by cartels where just about everything was for sale, so she certainly would have been in the presence of non-pacified men. And the young are often attracted to experiment with the taboo. But I don’t believe there is more. Claims of submission in politics are almost as old as our liberation. However, if President Dolan does prove her allegations Ilona will be ruined. Female submission is a rejection of everything our society stands for, and submissives are rightly ostracized.

Just before boarding the shuttle I pass the familiar bronze statue of that very first White Queen – Listu Adorin, she who liberated Gaianesia and began the program to turn us into the peaceful world we have today.

Every citizen of the planet recognizes her image and we all learn about her life. I mean - she even features in the university logo. I’m not usually interested in ancient history, and haven’t given her much thought since mandatory education as a child, but today I’m seeking anything that keeps me from worrying about Gara. For all the duration of the short flight, I test my memory of the facts from our distant past, and silently I whisper the names of those famous heroines as though they’re a mantra that can somehow protect me.

2- Gaianesia 101

No one knows whether our species originated from Gaianesia or near-neighbors Harka-Ringworld, as there is evidence of civilization stretching back for millions of years on both.

Gaianesians can see further into the infrared spectrum than the Harkens and the humans, but we are all close enough to being genetically identical that we can interbreed with either lifeform. We look almost identical to humans, except for our species has a brown mottled pattern like a tire track which runs across our foreheads, just below the hairline. Our irises also come in different colors to human ones, and range from red through pink to the shade considered most desirable – a deep purple hue that in females makes the eyes look large and reminds others of The Reflex’s color.

There is speculation we and the Harkens were once human – our world seeded by their ancients long lost to history. That will probably always be a subject of academic debate, however one topic both habitable planets in our system do agree on is that fifty thousand years ago – no time at all in evolutionary terms – a solar flare caused the same mutation in the two worlds, triggering devastating social consequences for both.

A minor alteration in the Y chromosome meant that from that point forward, four out of five births in our species were male. We were at the time reaching the early stages of technology and industrialization, but the mutation plunged both worlds back to anarchy as competition to breed with desirable females became ferocious. Rape was so common it was the most likely cause of death in a woman.

On our neighbor Harka-Ringworld, after several thousand years in that dark era of chaos, a patriarchal society emerged where women were protected, but only by a status change where females became chattels of male houses. The highest ranking Harken men were joined by marriage to suitable females, and lower ranking Harkens were denied completely, or were forced to relieve physical desires with prostitutes or slaves.

Warring was constant between the feudal Harken states, with female captives being the most sought after prize. However the species survived, and gradually progressed into a hierarchical society with each state’s native men at the top, then citizen women who at least had certain freedoms within the restrictions of their house, and then slave women captured from other states and used for breeding, and captive males at the bottom.

War and masculinity became ingrained over thousands of years into the cornerstones of Harken culture and they remain so today, with the only change being that Harken bloodlust has spilled over into local space.

After the solar flare Gaianesia descended into a similar era of millennia in anarchy and mass rape. Until that is during the fourth millennia after the flare, when some women banded together into a large enough group to protect themselves, and then they co-operated to make rapid technological advances.

Their solution to the planet’s problems was brutal, at first. Spiking the planet’s water supplies on a vast scale with a cocktail of hormones and chemicals, they turned the violent animalistic males into the docile, submissive and sexually inert drones we see today.

Our leader’s name back then - Listu Adorin.

Once the lust of our masculine population was safely under control, a few males with high intelligence and physical strength were permitted to live without drugs and be used for breeding purposes, sustaining new generations and ensuring the high quality of Gaianesian offspring.

Meanwhile Listu’s regime began an indoctrination campaign with the pacified males, counselling them on their correct place in society as servants to the dominant and superior females. There was resistance of course, but brutal times demanded brutal solutions and Listu prevailed.

Within a couple of generations of men being educated from birth to understand their natural place in the order, they too began to see that peace resulted from our two tier social system. From then on men co-operated to fight wholeheartedly for the women they viewed as superior enough to be almost divine. We were creatures to be revered, instead of desirable objects to be subjugated and possessed.

For generations now, our drone males are trusted to staff our nurseries and teach each new generation. It is thus ingrained as unthinkable for them to harm us, and unthinkable for us women to wish ill against those who raised us. We exist in perfect harmony.

All trace of the dark terrors of the rapacious past are forgotten by our planet’s women, except for the additional genetic consequence of The Reflex that makes us so desirable to the Slavers of Aghara-Penthay. But there’s no need to reflect on that shameful secret.

Once stable governments were established, the relative peace our two planets – Gaianesia and Harka-Ringworld, continued on their separate paths. A scarcity of certain natural resources meant that although we were aware of each other and communications had been open for centuries, we were late getting into space and meeting face to face. Even today a lack of metals means most of Gaianesia’s buildings are usually made of wood and stone, giving the cities a classical look that tourists consider quaint.

Interstellar travel had to find our worlds, rather than us reaching out, as neither planet contains a source of the trimium crystals used to power gravity hyperdrives.

But inevitably the frontier of civilized space expanded passed us, bringing contact from the young Republic, as well as encounters with the less pleasant inhabitants of the galaxy. Fifteen light years away on Aghara-Penthay, unfortunately one of our next-nearest neighbors outside the home system, a particularly cruel group of pirates had settled on a planet which was habitable but devoid of intelligent life, and therefore ideal to use as their base of operations. There was nowhere for captives on Aghara-Penthay to run, when the only way back into space was through the masters.

Gaianesia and Harka-Ringworld had existed in harmony for millennia, but once we joined the galactic community that all changed.

The commencement of trouble wasn’t even because of the uncontrollable cravings of Harken males for women. Yes, they made some half-hearted attempt to take us as captives, but we were the technologically superior, and raids by Harkens on Gaianesia were infrequent and usually rebuffed. Besides, rather than plunder women from ourselves or other Harken states, there was an easier solution for Harka-Ringworld - human females could be purchased by the thousands from that vile neighbor I just mentioned – the slave trader’s world of Aghara-Penthay.

No, slavery wasn’t the issue. For us, the weak and sexually-fixated wills of Harken males is actually a good thing. We appreciate that while our controlled and selective breeding makes Gaianesian women strong, with tall, toned bodies resembling the finest female athletes in the galaxy, the Harkens dilute their gene pool with human pussy. If human women are too frail to keep out of slave chains it’s their outlook.

The problems began with exploration of the third planet in our system – rocky Calico with its toxic atmosphere of methane and carbon dioxide. Sitting on an orbit almost exactly halfway between ours and the elliptical path of Harka-Ringworld was one of the largest sources of trimium crystals in the galaxy. As soon as the minerals were discovered both worlds made immediate territorial claims on Calico, and despite there being more than enough bounty for both, the dispute quickly became violent.

And violent it has continued, for six centuries now – a barely moving battle front concealed beneath Calico’s stormy surface, which divides the world approximately in half. War is waged unendingly through underground tunnels, with armies departing from vast underground cities built to equip the mines. We are fighting to kill our enemy, whereas the Harkens once more trying to capture as many of our women alive as possible, where they can be returned to Harka-Ringworld to serve as breeders in one of the houses.

That’s what I fear most for Gara. A prisoner on Calico, or undercover on Harka-Ringworld itself. Enduring a non-drone man’s lustful hands on her body, and The Reflex, and then Gara pregnant with a Harken child. Gaianesians say that death is better than captivity, but faced with that possibility when it’s my own sister, I can’t accept that so easily. Is death worse than being debased to the level of a slave, too shamed to live down her submission if she did make it home? She would be ostracized, but she’d be alive.

I still don’t have an answer when after disembarking the shuttle, I half-run across the broad plazas towards The Fortress. Please, please, don’t let it be either of those. Let her be wounded, in her pelvis to explain my nightmares, but nothing that can’t be fixed by a bacta tank to bring my Gara home safe and intact. If there are gods, please hear me.

3 – Duchess

The vast concrete complex of The Fortress is the center of Gaianesia’s defense and intelligence operations, so security at the entrance is tight.

Although any Gaianesian woman can be trusted, and we can all be recognized by the distinctive markings on the skin of our heads and shoulders that make us distinguishable from human females, unfortunately many of the Harkens look just like we do. Female Harken agents have been known to try and infiltrate the building – traitors to their own sex who believe in the Harken ideology of masculine supremacy.

Of course males are not permitted within The Fortress. Not even to complete the menial jobs.

At the closely guarded control gates I ask for Red Duchess, and present the palm of my hand for yet another DNA verification of my identity. There is a painful reminder of why I’m here when the scanner incorrectly recognizes me as Gara, and I have to explain myself to the guards.

Once inside, the narrow corridors feel claustrophobic – the same sense one gets being underground with a vast weight of rock above. The walls are thick enough to withstand the most powerful of blaster weapons.

A junior recruit – probably a girl on her mandatory service lucky enough to avoid the battle front, escorts me through the bustling building.

The door of Red Duchess’ office is ajar. I’m about to walk in when I hear the sound of an argument is raging inside. I automatically pause, waiting for a polite moment to interrupt. My escort, similarly uncertain what to do, also hesitates, and we can’t avoid hearing the conversation as follows:

“It goes against everything we stand for, to deliberately send someone there,” Red Duchess is telling someone. “You know what they do with Gaianesian women.”

My escort looks anxiously at me. As a conscript she’ll get in the most trouble for eavesdropping on state secrets.

Red Duchess is just inside that room. I’ve only met my sister’s commander once, at a social occasion to celebrate a breeding, but Red Duchess comes from a rural region in the far north of Gaianesia and I recognize her distinctive accent. She was a naturally imposing leader, as are all those who reach Duchess rank, and I found her a little intimidating. But the other woman inside the office interrupts impatiently as though lecturing a subordinate.

“What other choice do we have? We desperately need those plans and we have two incredible strokes of luck with Gara having a genetically identical twin, and Riyena still being on the Hub.”

I’m too surprised at the sound of the other speaker’s voice even to react at first to hearing my sister’s name. For the speaker is no other than the woman who runs the whole military operations on our planet – White Queen. The current White Queen enjoys the status of a celebrity on Gaianesia, for when she first took over the battle on Calico she won more territory in two years than her predecessor did in the last two decades. Things have deteriorated rapidly there over the past six months though, with ominously high losses of women to the Harkens. All the same she’s still a legendary commander – possibly as great as Listu Adorin.

And White Queen is in that office discussing my sister? I didn’t even know she was back on Gaianesia. What could Red Duchess, or Gara, have been doing that was so important that White Queen is personally involved?

Red Duchess is not awestruck like I am by the living legend.

“I don’t care,” she retorts rudely. “I’d rather lose a thousand lives to the Harkens than deliberately send one of our people where Gara’s gone.”

“You’d rather lose a thousand, but I think we should offer Lara that choice, don’t you?”

Did I just hear that? White Queen just said “Lara”. Why would the great White Queen know my name?

“I disagree,” barks Red Duchess. “Lara shouldn’t choose. She doesn’t have enough experience to understand what she’d be volunteering for. Look at her file. Just look! She’s had nothing but basic fleet training. It doesn’t look like during her service she ever left the corvette and set foot on another world. I’m not sure she’s even been to the trading enclave. Does she have the first idea what non-Gaianesian males are capable of? Especially around a female that looks like she does.”

Of course I do, well, in theory anyway. But that logic is forgotten as I’m gifted the opportunity to replace worry with anger. They’ve started talking about me as though as I’m a child, and I won’t stand for it. I have the same willful spirit as Gara, and hearing them be so condescending spurs me to action.

I knock firmly on the doorframe, boldness that makes my escort go wide-eyed with horror. Leaving her to flee down the corridor, I walk into the large, elegantly furnished room, and confidently greet the two women inside.

Red Duchess is familiar to me - a short, slender woman whose motherly appearance belies her tough manner. Even though she’s only her early forties her skin has bronzed from years of sun to a texture like a walnut. Her markings are beginning to fade. Things are safe enough for women here on Gaianesia, but she still chooses to wear her hair short – a tribute to our ancestors or a sign of readiness for battle. Red Duchess’ expression is strong but there’s kindness there also. Here is someone who cares for her people.

The other woman looks colder, ruthless. White Queen is in her sixties, or perhaps even seventies. She was considered to be the most beautiful woman on Gaianesia in her youth, and her face is still striking. However the markings around her head show greater age, having faded from the chocolate brown color that advertises a Gaianesian woman as young and fertile, to the pale ivory of a female well past her childbearing years. Her hair turned silver many years ago, but she wears it as long as I have mine.

Both are dressed in the ankle-length, loose fitting robes that conceal the figure - typical of fashions in older Gaianesian women. Notable on White Queen is the bandage she always has wrapped around her right wrist – a proud but disfiguring scar rumored to have been a wound suffered undercover on Harka-Ringworld itself.

The women have stopped talking to inspecting me as I inspect them. I’m spoiling for an argument to discharge more of the fear and emotion I’m feeling about my sister, but Red Duchess has an expression of sympathy that reminds me of my mother, and seeing this makes me crumble.

“Please,” I say in an anguished voice. “Just tell me, where is Gara?”

The two women look at each other as though trying to decide if I can handle bad news.

“Please,” I say again, and Red Duchess finally speaks. Only with a question, though.

“Did Gara tell you much about her work?”

“No. Only that she was keeping us safe from the Harkens.”

Red Duchess nods.

“Then what I am about to tell you is most secret, and I hope we can rely on your utmost discretion.” Red Duchess states firmly.

“Oh, just tell her,” White Queen interrupts angrily with a dismissive wave of her hand. “This is Gara’s sister. Of course she’s not going to blab to our enemies.”

“Let me do it my way,” Red Duchess snaps. “I’m getting there.”

Both sigh almost simultaneously, and frown at each other. I’d always assumed military intelligence would work in harmony towards united goals, but these women don’t seem to like each other.

Once Red Duchess convinced White Queen isn’t going to interrupt she begins.

“Gara was handler for our most important agent on Harka-Ringworld. Her name is Riyena Erkeegan, and unusually for a Harken female she’s a high ranking member of their military. Riyena disagrees with some of the restrictions of Harken society. Specifically - she’s a lesbian.”

My eyes widen. A Harken lesbian? Well that explains why she’d betray her homeworld. The Harken perception is that relations between two women are seen as a waste of precious female breeding flesh, and thus are strictly forbidden on Harka-Ringworld.

“One of our moles on Harka-Ringworld first passed on the rumor that Riyena Erkeegan might be a lesbian. So we tested it, arranging that your sister (who you must admit, like you, is an exceptional beauty), would cross her path at the weapons exhibition on Mordlin Four and pose as an equipment buyer.”

I wave the compliment to my looks aside dismissively. It does not matter.

“Gara seduced her, in the usual manner of these things. We arranged for the women to come across each other a second time, and a third. Unusually for a Harken female Riyena travelled frequently offworld. The two women became intimate. Riyena fell in love with Gara, and became convinced that Gara loved her back. As the relationship became established Riyena wanted the two of them to be able to live together openly, so she began to ask about claiming sanctuary on Gaianesia. At the appropriate moment Gara revealed that she was, in fact an intelligence agent.”

It sounds like the stuff of spy thrillers. But my sister – the lover to a Harken female? Surely she felt no true affection? However, if that was the case, then it means Gara give away her intimacies for material gain instead of love.

“The relationship could have fallen apart at that point, but the couple were too close for Riyena to be deterred. Quite the opposite happened. When she learned the truth, what she offered in exchange for protection was beyond our wildest dreams. Riyena said she could access an almost complete download of the Harken military operations on Calico and give them to us, simply in exchange for a new home on Gaianesia. We’re talking technical drawings of equipment, maps, military personnel files, strategy documents… Everything. Most precious of all – designs for the new Harken stun weapon that’s recently started wreaking havoc up there on Calico. It’s being kept secret by the press, and you must not reveal this either Lara, but in a matter of weeks we’ve lost a third of our territory, and stunned Gaianesian soldiers are all taken captive. It’s a catastrophe.”

The thought makes me cold. How many women, taken into the Harken breeding program? It doesn’t bear thinking about. And might be Gara one of them? Is that where Gara is?

I must concentrate on something else or lose my mind. And even with my limited knowledge of covert operations I latch onto something - a problem in what Red Duchess is saying.

“But even if she could download the plans, how could this… Riyena… ever be allowed to leave Harken space carrying the information?”

Red Duchess nods approvingly, as though I passed a test.

“You’re quite right, Lara. Of course Harka-Ringworld and Calico are highly militarized and on permanent lockdown, so Riyena couldn’t just fly out carrying a data file unless it was hidden, copied onto a chip and implanted into her flesh.”

That still seems unlikely to succeed.

“But the Harkens scan for implants, just like we do…” I continue.

Red Duchess nods again.

“Yes, Harken security do scan departing citizens for implants. Riyena herself proposed the solution – something that seemed cleverly simple at the time – that her chip would configured to remain entirely inert and therefore invisible, unless it was triggered by the presence of your sister’s DNA. A physical touch between the two women would be all that was needed, but without that the chip would simply seem redundant, obsolete. Only in a safe situation when they were together could the upload take place to a device in Gara’s custody. If anything went wrong, both women could deny everything, avoid body contact and no-one’s cover would be blown.”

“I suppose Riyena mainly saw her plan as a way to guarantee your sister’s continued participation, but it had tactical merit. Everything was agreed and set in motion. The first part of the operation went entirely according to plan and Riyena left Harken territory.”

“Of course with the war raging, there is little contact between our worlds. Riyena could not simply take a shuttle directly from Harka-Ringworld to Gaianesia. The shortest civilian connection between is from Harka to travel to the deep space trading outpost of Escarod, and from there back to Gaianesia. And so it went. Riyena caught a commercial shuttle to Escarod, under the pretext to her superiors of a few days leave, made the rendezvous there with Gara, and the two women caught a ride on an inconsequential merchant vessel carrying metals bound for Gaianesia – the Irulin Darkstar. Just when success seemed certain the worst happened. I’m sorry to tell you Lara, but that freighter never arrived here.”

I feel as though something inside me is preparing to explode. Here it comes.

“Dead?” I ask in a high, panicked voice. “Some kind of accident?”

No. She can’t be dead. Terribly injured, her pelvis ruined? The dreams…

“Worse.” Red Duchess says bluntly. “The freighter was attacked by pirates and captured.”

“Not pirates…” I plead. I don’t want to hear more now, but she presses on inexorably.

“Raiders from Aghara-Penthay.”

When I hear the name of our dreaded neighbor it’s as though someone has cut my legs from under me. My vision blurs and the world becomes unreal. With my head spinning it’s difficult to stay on my feet. A woman’s hand goes to my elbow, supporting me.

“Gara taken by men from the rapists’ planet?” I moan. “Gods no…”

Tears have already started trickling down my cheeks. I can’t keep my voice steady as, unsure which answer I want to hear, I ask my next question.

“Are they alive?”

“We’re only certain that Riyena survived. But your sister is exactly the kind of female the Slavers most prize. If they could have done, they would have taken her.”

“My Gara? Captured for a sex slave? She’d never allow it!”

I’m not sure which is worse. The possibility that Gara might be dead, or the chance that rather than fight to the end she might let herself be debased and degraded, a plaything to those monsters. Human women are weak, but not Gara. She’d know her career, her life, her chance of breeding would be over if she were made slave.

But then how do I explain the dreams? The stabbing pain… Could that have been? A man…? Not wounded… Oh Gods, no! Don’t let me imagine her like that. No! I must say something, anything. Grasping for a question I blurt out:

“Riyena. How do you know they have Riyena? How do you know they have any of them? Maybe they all perished.”

Silently Red Duchess hands me a data pad. Through the blur of my free-flowing tears I look down at the screen to see it shows an advertisement.

The woman in the image I do not recognize. She’s a youthful brunette with the pale skin and mottling typical of our two species. On the side of her face, overwriting the creamy silk of pale skin and brown mottling is a swirling mark like a tattoo. I know enough of Aghara-Penthay to recognize it – the slave mark that the Slavers permanently tattoo on all their captive women, as a sign of quality.

She’s pretty, although in my biased view not as attractive as Gara. The woman’s breasts are small, and her hips are not so wide in proportion to her waist. Her vulva is entirely hairless. Its pale pink lips are fat and rounded, almost submerging the vertical slit.

She’s less strongly built than the females on our world. A Harken woman.

This female is stark naked, which is does not shock me. Gaianesian women are comfortable being nude in front of each other. What makes me gasp is her pose, to see a woman with the markings of our species on her knees and holding her thighs open, as though she needs to humbly plead for sexual attention. A sex traitor! A whore!

That’s why my first reaction to the picture is, “And this submissive thing thought my sister was good enough for her?”

“Don’t judge her too harshly,” Red Duchess says firmly. “The Slavers of Aghara-Penthay implant a microchip into the brainstem of captive women. It disrupts the signals relating to willpower, meaning an implanted female is compelled to follow orders, as long as the order is given by a man. They only had to ask her to pose that way and she would have obeyed.”

I’ve heard that before, but my beliefs are too ingrained to accept that some part of her nature must have already been inclined to submission. Otherwise how could a woman look so unashamed, displaying her sex like that?

I’m looking at a female debasing herself to please men… Possession of this image could get someone into trouble on Gaianesia. I would throw the revolting filth away in disgust, were I not obliged to pay attention to the writing, which is the common galactic script.

“Riyena, 25, from Harka-Ringworld,” I say aloud. “Fifty credits for a session, slave also for permanent sale by auction galactic date 10:13:4452. Enquires to the Palace of Roses, Mezzanine Level, Aghara-Penthay Orbital Trading Station.”

A footnote adds, “Bring your own slave. See her abused as the plaything of this woman hater.”

“Woman hater?” I ask. “I thought you said Riyena was a lesbian. Gara would never be intimate with a misogynist.”

“The brain implants can do more than force women to obey” White Queen explains. “They can change the woman’s personality, sexuality, anything they want. With lesbian females they often enjoy turning them sadistic towards their own sex, a trick they also like to do with women from female dominated societies such as ours.”

What kind of animal would want to do that – alter a woman’s very identity? I feel faint with horror. And I’m more disgusted these women think my sister would tolerate such treatment.

“You actually believe they did this to Gara as well?” I say, outraged. “Surely not! She’d take her own life rather than do anything the Slavers wanted.”

“We don’t know,” says Red Duchess in a placatory tone. “We don’t know about anyone else on that ship. There were twenty on board, mostly humans, and Riyena is the only one about whom we have any information. I’m sure your sister will have resisted to the last during the pirate attack, and she may no longer be alive. But it’s possible she was stunned and taken alive, and is being processed somewhere on the surface of Aghara-Penthay. It’s also possible she’s already been sold and is somewhere else. There’s even a chance she’s on the trading station orbiting the planet. The Slavers like to market women with a backstory, a connection, so they would see a value in keeping Gara close to Riyena.”

Red Duchess pauses, giving me that breaking-bad-news face again.

“All we can do is tell you your sister is Missing in Action at the moment.”

But I can see from the other woman’s condescending expression that White Queen clearly believes Gara was weak enough to let herself be captured.

“If your sister was selected for auction, they’d advertise it on the usual galactic slave trading networks and we’re monitoring those channels,” White Queen says bluntly, “but Gara might have been retained without auction, or sold privately, or any number of fates where which case we wouldn’t find out about it. The best chance to find about her fate, and about the plans, is to send someone to the Slavers’ orbital station to ask Riyena in person.”

I laugh scathingly at the impossibility of doing that. There’s an obvious problem with a Gaianesian going to that den of scum. On Slaver territory, women do not have the same rights as men. Any female around Aghara-Penthay is automatically a slave in the eyes of their laws. And slaves must have owners. Unpacified male owners.

Unescorted females are captured instantly and taken to the planet’s surface for processing by the Slavers. Not even male offworlders can reach the planet itself - outsiders can only visit the orbital Hub. The only people allowed down to the arid surface are male pirates working in the four Slaver factions, and their female property.

As for the Hub where Riyena is being held, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations for male visitors, flooded as it is with cheaply available sex. Females occasionally visit as well, but still have to comply with their laws. Women on the Hub need a male owner. Visiting slaves who are not the property of Aghara-Penthay are still obliged to be identified against their owners, this being done by bracelets locked on the wrist or ankle which carry registration information.

But this is all aside. Even if a Gaianesian woman would submit to the deep degradation of accepting a male as her owner, she couldn’t visit the Hub. There’s yet another problem. Aghara-Penthay hates Gaianesia almost as much as they do the Sadami women. A Gaianesian female, detected via a DNA scan during her registration for the slave bracelet, would be instantly seized and become the property of Aghara-Penthay.

“You have a male agent willing to travel to the trading station?” I ask Red Duchess. “A human?”

“We have allies,” White Queen answers for her evasively, “and no doubt it wouldn’t take much persuasion for an unpacified human male to travel on one of the tourist shuttles on our behalf and make an appointment at the Palace of Roses. But that would only get us news about your sister. A male agent wouldn’t be able to activate Riyena’s chip and upload the plans we desperately need to survive the Harken war. Only Gara can do that, or at least someone who the implant believes is Gara.”

Before I can consider what she’s just said Red Duchess interrupts, speaking critically to White Queen.

“I must restate for Lara’s sake that I’m entirely against this idea. By everything Gaianesia stands for, what you’re suggesting is wrong.”

“What idea?” I ask, but there’s no need for them to answer for White Duchess’s “someone who the implant believes is Gara” just caught up with me and I finally understand the implications of why I’ve been summoned to the Fortress.

I’ve felt faint since learning Gara might be on Aghara-Penthay, and now the horror of it all, the terror of what I’m being asked to do becomes too much, and this time consciousness does desert me.

4 – Mission

“See? She’s not as strong as her sister,” Red Queen is protesting from somewhere close by.

“She’s tough enough,” disagrees White Queen. “It’s in her genes, remember. We’ll cheat the DNA scanner with a skin graft so the Slavers don’t detect her species, and we’ll mask her markings. She’ll be on and off the Hub in a matter of hours. After that, apart from the trauma of the experience and being stuck with the damned bracelet, there will be no permanent effect. ”

Reality comes crashing back in on me. White Queen’s plan is that I, I, should go to the Hub orbiting Aghara-Penthay. I wish I could lose consciousness again. I wish I could rewind and forget all this. But I’m here, this is real, and Gara might have been taken by the Slavers.

Reluctantly I open my eyes. I’m lying on a low couch I’d seen at the side of Red Duchess’ office. The two women are sat close by, posed as demurely as statues. but having resumed the earlier argument.

“If she agrees,” Red Duchess is countering. “And Gaianesian beliefs are too ingrained in her to do that. She’s a model citizen.”

Rather than adding to my earlier eavesdropping, I push myself up from the couch, propping my torso with one arm. Once they see I’m awake, I go straight to the attack.

“Aghara-Penthay. You didn’t just bring me here to give me bad news. You want me to go to Aghara-Penthay for you, don’t you?” It is White Queen of whom I ask this, and I do so accusingly.

Before she can answer I expand on what that would mean. “You want me to shame myself. You want me to bow down and follow the orders of those men, as though I’m as weak willed as a human female. Not even the women locked in the prison for submissives would debase themselves enough to enter that place, but you expect me to go?”

I’m angry, and this seems to amuse Red Duchess.

“I told you that’s what she’d say,” she informs White Queen with a wry smile.

White Queen frowns wearily and rubs her brow.

“In intelligence sometimes we have to set aside personal dignity for the good of Gaianesia.”

“The good of Gaianesia?” I almost spit. “At least you have the decency to admit that’s what this is about. Only Gaianesia. You don’t care about rescuing Gara. You just want me to go to Aghara-Penthay to recover those plans.”

She closes her eyes in acknowledgement.

“We’re losing, Lara,” she says. “Losing worse than you know from the media. And it’s not just about territory on Calico. Their new blaster technology might weaken the defense grid and there might be raids here on Gaianesia, soon. I respect your sister, but we can’t give up just because one brave woman is lost. So yes, those plans are more important than any one of us.”

“Our culture is founded on the natural dominance of females,” I restate, as though she needs reminding. “We shun those who submit to men. And you’re asking me to willingly walk into slavery? What happens when I come home, if word gets out I went there?”

“Again, the circumstances are extraordinary enough to ask you to take the risk,” White Queen says. “But I still wouldn’t send you if I thought you might be going into permanent captivity. You would simply mimic the tourist groups of human traitor women, who travel to Aghara-Penthay to temporarily experience debasing themselves. For a suitable fee your male escort” (I notice at that point how she slyly avoids the words “master” or “owner) “would take you to the brothel where Riyena is enslaved. You’d touch the girl, uploading the information to a receiver we’d implant into your own skin. You could ask where your sister is. In under an hour you’d be back on his ship, and you could remain in your cabin for the rest of the voyage.”

She looks at me earnestly.

“We ask you to endure one hour of humiliation that you’ll be able to put behind you, Lara, in exchange for answers about your sister and saving your homeworld.”

“But it’s not ever going to be entirely behind me, is it?” I accuse. “You’re conveniently forgetting that the wrist bracelets of visiting slaves can’t ever be removed. There’s a toxin injector inside the bracelet that detects tampering. What will I say when my friends and family see me wearing one of those things?”

“The situation isn’t perfect,” White Queen sighs. “But it’s our only chance to recover the plans.”

“Not perfect?” I splutter. “I’ll have to put myself in the power of a non-passive male. Walk with someone who’s controlled by his cock, while I’m wearing next to nothing, right into Aghara-Penthay, and then ask if he’ll be kind enough to take me to be in the power of a sadistic lesbian and hope he leaves me alone. Even supposing he co-operates what happens when Riyena sees me? She’ll think I’m Gara, and she’s bound to raise the alarm.”

Red Duchess nods emphatic agreement with me, but again White Queen has an answer.

“You can make sure your escort is instructed to ask for a private audience in a soundproof room,” she says smoothly. “They’re common in the brothels that specialize in sadomasochism and torture.”

(I shudder at the mention of sadomasochism and torture)

“Listen to me Lara, you can easily have your man command her not to shout or make a fuss. Her slave implant will compel her to obey him.”

I have objection after objection.

“I can’t go there,” I insist. “They enslave Gaianesian women on sight. They’ll see the marks of our species. And the DNA scan will reveal it.”

“Simple invisible skin patches around your wrists will fool the scanners in the bracelet, Lara. And we can give you an injection that will fade your markings for a couple of days. You’ll look just like a human woman.”

“But what about Gara?” I demand. “Even if I find out where she is, this mission isn’t going to save her.”

“We can’t guarantee anything there,” White Queen says, “But sometimes Gaianesian women come up for sale in the auctions. If this happens with your sister, as a reward for your cooperation a male agent will be instructed to buy her.”

My breath catches in my throat. An inviolate law on Gaianesia is that we never pay ransoms for captured women. Many of our people hold the view that a woman weak enough to fall doesn’t deserve anything else. But it’s mainly because once we gave in to one ransom, the demands would never stop.

“You’d give money to the Slavers of Aghara-Penthay?” I say in shock. “For Gara?”

The scandal of Ilona Minani being a submissive would be nothing compared to the outrage if word leaked out that the government paid even a credit to Aghara-Penthay. Just suggesting the idea could ruin White Queen’s career.

“To save your sister, yes,” White Queen says bluntly. “But you have to help us first.”

I clench my fists indecisively. Gara… If only you were here to advise me. What am I supposed to do?

“I won’t let you talk her into this…” Red Duchess cuts in taking advantage of my hesitation. “It’s all very well for you to send her there to suffer these indignities for you, but the two of you don’t know the first thing about real men.”

“And you do?” White Queen looks amused.

“Even private slaves find the Hub an ordeal. Men know they can act with impunity on Slaver territory. Lara’s going to be molested from the moment she sets foot on that station until the moment she leaves. She’ll be lucky if she’s not raped by her owner. What happens if he decides to keep her, or sell her to them? It happens sometimes, even with the more reputable tourist escorts.”

I take offense to that.

“I’m strong. No one is raping me.”

But my reply only seems to fuel Red Duchess’ patronizing attitude.

“See? Proof she doesn’t know what she’s getting into. Lara, you’re exceptionally beautiful to human eyes, which means to the men of Aghara-Penthay you’re Grade-A slave material. Understand me, Lara, that valuable as you are as a citizen of Gaianesia, to the scum on Aghara-Penthay you might be worth more. Over fifty thousand credits as a sex slave.”

I look down at myself. Yes, I’m tall; I’m slim with a narrow waist and wide hips; I’m athletic and toned like most Gaianesian women; and from my mother I inherited the exceptionally large breasts that unpacified males are supposed to desire. But really – it’s nothing but a body. Fifty thousand credits just for this? That’s more than I earn in five years.

While I look disbelieving Red Duchess rounds on White Queen.

“I won’t have it,” she insists. “You can’t sit here safe on Gaianesia and send Lara as a sacrifice to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.”

No-one likes accusations of cowardice and color rises in White Queen’s face and I think for a moment she’s going to explode.

“I’m not sending her to do something I wouldn’t do myself.”

“Ha!” snaps Red Duchess. “Easy for you to say.”

“Is that how little you think of me? Right…” White Queen snaps, and haughtily she reaches down to the cream bandage around her right wrist. Wordlessly she pulls back the elastic band of fabric, exposing the pale wrinkled skin of an elderly woman underneath.

I’ve heard many of the stories of White Queen’s valor for Gaianesia. She was badly injured on Calico at the battle of Abraxas Wells and still walks with a limp.

Her bandage is rumored to cover up scarring from an undercover operation on Harka-Ringworld itself. But the skin of her forearm and hand are entirely unharmed.

Instead, tightly encircling the bone of her arm, just above the joint of her wrist where most citizens might wear a watch, is a slave bracelet of Aghara-Penthay.

5 - Decision

Red Duchess gasps at the same time as I do. So she didn’t know either.

“A slave bracelet…” she says in absolute shock. “That didn’t come from Harka-Ringworld. You went to the Hub, all those years ago.”

Twice White Queen has put her reputation in our hands. Saying she’d pay the Slavers to buy Gara, and now this. A braceleted female can’t be White Queen. It doesn’t matter if she earned it in the service of our planet. She would have behaved like a submissive while they locked it on her, and if a woman is capable of submitting once she always will be.

We’ve seen what we needed to see, and White Queen is already testily pulling the bandage back over her forearm to conceal the proof of shame.

Red Duchess is almost as astounded as I am.

“Why could you have possibly needed to go there?” she asks.

White Queen frowns as though she has a bad taste in her mouth.

“The protection on Aghara-Penthay is designed to keep large enemy warships away, and trap slaves in. But the security is less rigorous in preventing individuals infiltrating and reach the surface. Someone had the idea that if we could get a team of heavily armed agents in one-by-one via the Hub, they could steal a shuttle and make a stand for women, by disrupting the Rape Run. Of course, it would be a one-way trip, and they’d have had to kill themselves before being captured and turned into sex slaves themselves. But for once, the men would have been defeated by the women.”

“It needed someone who knew the mission concept to recon the Trading Hub. I volunteered, even though I knew I’d end up wearing the bracelet as a consequence.”

We’re looking at her open-mouthed, and White Queen looks uncomfortable for the first time I’ve seen. Maybe that’s why she keeps talking.

“Gaianesian women were taken on sight by the Slavers even back then, but as I’ve already proposed for your journey, our skull markings can be hidden and the sensor in the registration bracelet only scans the DNA of the skin it touches. They’re easy to trick with a graft. It’s lucky I could pass as human, because the Slavers desperately wanted me for the Rape Run even then. If they knew this bracelet corresponded to me,” (and she holds up her wrist again), “they’d use it to track me down, and bounty hunters would be waiting as soon as I left the safety of Gaianesia.”

The Rape Run. She’s able to mention it so casually, the universe’s cruelest and most-watched sport. Ten of the galaxy’s most desirable women are captured and left in an arena on Aghara-Penthay’s surface known as The Zone. Then the five, now four, faction leaders of the Slaver clans the “Hunters” set out to find the women. And when they do find one, and in front of the galactic viewing audience they rape her and rape her and rape her.

The women Runners know this is their likely fate but they do their best to compete anyway, for the last one uncaught is the winner and becomes the rarest thing on Aghara-Penthay – a female who leaves the Slavers free and relatively unharmed.

And this is White Queen’s fate, if they ever catch her.

Red Duchess is also dwelling on the brutal event some think of as entertainment.

“Forgive my rudeness, White Queen, but I thought they only took young women for the Rape Run.”

“I was nearly captured five years ago, in spite of my advancing years. The Slavers have rejuvenation technology using the bacta. They could rebuild my body to an age they consider most desirable. The Hunters have their own personal bounty hunters, you know, as well as using the freelancers, and they dispatched one of those.”

“Salarin, the most sadistic of the Slaver faction leaders, has a bounty hunter working for him called Egregious Klink. He captures well protected, high value women, either as slaves captured to order, or for participation in the Rape