I skidded into the lift elevator just before the metal grate-like doors slammed closed, locking us all in. Twenty or so of us, crammed in like sardines, some still sporting the smudges of dirt from yesterday, were on our way down the two hundred and thirty feet of sediment to the mines just above the earth’s mantle. In a desperate attempt to ignore the queasiness in my stomach from the rocking and bouncing of the car as it descended, I started counting. Usually by the time I reached one hundred, we had arrived at our stop. but this time Adria, from behind me, tapped me on the shoulder. Wary of the camera mounted in the corner above us, I nonchalantly turned my chin to the side to indicate I was listening.
“Did you hear about the new soldiers arriving today?” she whispered. I knew without looking, that her lips had barely moved. We’d all grown accustomed to speaking imperceptibly and in the barest of whispers, even when we were in our own tents during free time. The last thing anyone human wanted was to attract the attention of the M’Nai, the aliens who were running this gig now. And by gig, I mean the world. They’d arrived ten years ago, when I was only eight, claiming that they weren’t the only intergalactic species aware of our world: Earth. They didn’t allow us the choice of their assistance though, because they said they were saving us from a threat they predicted would come one day. The moment there had been a hint that the human leaders and government officials were resisting them, they took over. A few officials had died, but we were the first to raise our weapons. At least, that’s what we’d been told all this time. No one knew both sides of the story anymore. By the time we realized we’d allowed a potential danger into our home, it was too late. Textbooks were destroyed and school curriculums changed to only teach what the M’Nai wanted us to learn. Our heritage was once again told only through stories and passed down through our elders. There was no need for the aliens to decimate our population or take over our guns: the most damaging thing they had done to us was take away our history and communication. The only people we knew to be alive for certain were those we saw in the same camp every day. The aliens came and went in their atmo-jumpers – mini ships like large buses, way more advanced than an airplane – that would take them from one earth location to another. We, the slaves, were rarely transported.
They looked similar to us, except for their multi-colored eyes, dark blue hair and markings on their skin. The women were goddesses – beautiful beyond compare to any human woman – and their men were no different – Adonises in their own right. At first it was believed that the markings were tattoos made with special ink, but that theory was scrubbed when it was learned that the tattoos pulsed according to the emotions of the man or woman.
“No. I woke up late,” I whispered back, making sure to keep the movements of my mouth subtle.
“New recruits,” she went on. “Be careful.” Adria and I had seen our share of overzealous M’Nai soldiers looking to make a name for themselves in the mines. Usually that meant being nasty to the slaves their first few days on site. At first, when they sent us humans to dig for mantatite (a rare and newly discovered mineral crucial for the fight against the enemy race that was due to invade us soon) they tried to call us volunteers. It wasn’t long, though, before we all knew what we were. When the projects started, I was taken from my home, along with all my neighbors and locals in my town and brought to the encampment I was in now. I didn’t know where they had taken any other slaves or whether there was anything else outside of this, other than the towns and cities where the rest of the M’Nai resided. It was hard not to overhear their robust conversations while they watched us working, making sure we didn’t slow down or “become lazy.”
I tipped my chin, letting Adria know that I had got the message loud and clear and felt the car rock to a halt as it reached the bottom. The doors clanked open and I was relieved to breath in some freshly filtered air. Using technology we couldn’t even begin to fathom, the M’Nai had made the temperature more tolerable and the air breathable at this level. Without it, we would have all died when we were a few hundred or so feet above where we were now.
We filed into line as we walked by the entrance where the guard read the numbers on our shirts, marking us present as we passed him on the tablet he held. Our names were meaningless down here or in the presence of the M’Nai soldiers. To them, we were a number. Mine was 41192.
After getting the nod from the guard, Adria adjusted her hat atop her natural afro, making some brown curls poke out underneath at the sides. Her chocolate skin gleamed in the low light as she made for her station and I headed for the collection of empty carts in a small storage-like cave that had been carved out by other slaves. Thankfully, the cart wasn’t heavy as it was propelled by a small motor underneath it. The motor was activated as I, along with a dozen others doing the same, guided the cart down to another, deeper, cave. There we found men already at work, digging and making piles of mineral ready for collection. Parking the cart at the nearest pile, I pulled my gloves from my jeans pocket and tugged them on. Glancing up at the man swinging the pick, knocking loose sediment to get to the pay, I nodded to him. After a few more dinks he stopped, and pretending to adjust his gloves, his cheeks already dusted with dirt saying quietly, “How are you doing, Annabeth?”
I didn’t stop as I picked up rocks full of mantatite stuck between other clumps of ‘tite, dropping them into the cart. “Good,” I murmured, giving him a small smile from under my hard hat.
We all knew each other because most of us had come from the same towns, and a lot of us had grown up together. Landon and I went to the same elementary school before “touchdown” – the day the M’Nai finally landed on Earth after a week of negotiations and talks held above our atmosphere. They assured us they meant us no harm and stressed the imminent danger of the other alien race coming our way. We were fooled by their offer of protection and their promise of peaceful co-existence – obviously not the case.
“How are you? How’s Jen?” I asked him, dropping another load in as he adjusted his grip on his pickaxe. I was referring to Jenson, but we all called him Jen.
“Alright. We …”
“Quiet!” came the irritated voice of a M’Nai guard down the way. We didn’t glance up, but we clamped our lips shut and went about our work.
“Thank you for keeping this between us, General.” He stopped at the elevator that would take me down to the mines where I was to report to the colonel’s office for duty. I nodded and stood to attention, saluting him. Without missing a beat, he returned my salute, then turned on his heel and strode off.
In the colonel’s office, I stood to attention while he stared me down like I was the lerch scum he picked from his boot. I’d grown accustomed to this though – commanding officers trying to make you feel worthless so that you knew you wouldn’t be treated with kid gloves. It had definitely been an eye opener when I first joined the military, but that was seven years ago, and I was no longer a sensitive teenager.
“We all have a job to do here, soldier,” Colonel Li’Tau went on. “Don’t think that I won’t knock you on your ass if you aren’t pulling your weight.”
Keeping my gaze straight ahead and my chin up, I replied, “Yes, sir.”
He stood up and coming round from behind his desk, stood in front of me, staring up at my unwavering eyes. “And don’t think for a second that I’ll be sending you back to your daddy when you can’t cut it, either. This is the senai. We have our own way of dealing with things.” I heard the threat of punishment in his tone, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Another thing I’d gotten used to – people like the colonel thinking I relied on the silver spoon I had been born with, which I had left behind when I joined the army. What they didn’t know was that it was my background that had driven me to join in the first place.
“No, sir.” I told him.
With a satisfied nod, he went back to his seat, checking his tablet. I could see a schedule of sorts on the screen before he turned away to look out the window with a view of the large elevator that was unloading workers.
“Sergeant A’Res will walk you around and show you your duties for the first few days. He’ll report to me when you’re ready to cut the cord and go out on your own,” he told me. As if on cue, someone knocked on the door. “Enter!” he hollered.
I maintained my position as the door opened and the sounds of industrial engines and clanging from the workers filled the room. “You wanted to see me, sir?” came another man’s voice.
The colonel didn’t wave him in, but waved me out. “Yep. This is Corporal T’Laurish,” he said.
“You’re dismissed, corporal,” the colonel said to me, already engrossed in a report he was reading.
I turned on my heel and saw the welcoming smile on the other man’s face. He jerked his head, motioning me to follow him out, which I did. The noise was even louder outside, but something told me I would get used to it. M’Nai had the ability to filter the sounds we heard – not necessarily turning them on or off but hearing different frequencies better and tuning in to the important ones: another function that demonstrated the superiority of our minds over those of the humans. He tipped his head to me, and I returned the greeting. “Looks like we’ll be working together for the next few days, huh?” he asked.
He’d grown his hair out and tied it in small groups all along his head which were bunched together from his nape to the center of his back. I was required to grow mine, apart from the occasional trim, and my hair reached my thighs when loose. Luckily, an old house maid had taught me how to braid it from a young age and it was now braided in four rows, two on the side and two on the top. These tight plaits met at my neck which I then wrapped to make one thick braid and tied at my shoulders. I’d grown a thick scalp from all the pulling but the plaits were so much better than having it loose. Aside from the rank insignia on our chests, we wore the standard M’Nai uniform – gray tunics and pants tucked into charcoal boots.
“Looks like it,” I replied. He turned, waiting for me to follow, and headed for the elevator. When I’d arrived, it was just before the workers had come down to start the day. Now the place was bustling with activity. It seemed the majority of the humans had already reported in and now the elevator was being used to transport mineral carts to the processing plant, which was a level above.
“This is where you’ll check in, with the guard who is posted here.” He gave a short wave in the male’s direction, getting a nod in return. “Then head over to your station. Today, we’ll start in tunnel four, as it’s the busiest at the moment. We only broke through yesterday.”
By “breaking through” he referred to penetrating the layer of solidified sediment that had collected over the mantatite. Once we broke through it, we reached the precious mineral we were all here to obtain.
“We need to keep an eye on any changes and make notes of concerns the workers find in the conditions in case we need to move stabilizers in. Really, we’re just here to manage the workers. Make sure that everyone does their job. The humans like to mess around during work hours.” I could see the degree to which this irritated him, as it did every other M’Nai. We were a hardworking and focused people. We didn’t understand the need for humans to talk while they worked.
We passed by a number of large tunnel entrances before turning into one that was brightly lit and buzzing with activity. There were at least a dozen workers digging while another five or six were collecting the rocks into carts. The tunnel was probably thirty feet deep and eight feet wide, giving everyone plenty of workspace, yet they were close enough to still talk to one another, apparently. There, the third worker down from my left was chatting with a loader.
“Quiet!” I hollered to them, and, as they should, they shut their mouths and went back to work. They were there to work and any socializing was to be saved for their personal time two levels up. I turned back to see A’Res’s approving expression.
“Seems like you’ll get along just fine down here,” he stated. He walked me down the tunnel to point out all the necessary observances: tool names, sediment and mineral names, and how to recognize when a cave wall became unstable. When we were done, it was nearly time for the mid-day meal.
A short, chirping sound echoed from the speaker system throughout the web of tunnels, alerting everyone that it was time to clean up for the hour-long break period. I helped A’Res hurry the workers along, checking that they were collecting the rest of the rock, policing their equipment and pushing the carts out to be lifted ahead of them in the elevator. After ten minutes a final chime rang out and all the workers gathered outside the elevator doors, waiting for their turn to go up. The colonel and a few other soldiers had already gone up with the last round of carts.
A’Res and I stood behind the large group of workers, conversing with a few other guards, some new, some old. There were a couple fresh out of training and with this being their first station, naturally the more seasoned soldiers, such as me and A’Res, were razzing them a little. After falsely telling one that his royal house insignia on his arm band was upside down, we all chuckled at his naiveté. A commotion at the front of the crowd cut our laughter short and put us all on high alert. A’Res and I, being the tallest of the guards, peered over the sea of hard hats and finally spotted the source: a man was falling into the guard posted there. Cries of alarm and demands to stay back were all we heard, sending us ploughing through mass of people.
“Move! Move out of the way!” A’Res and I shouted, though there wasn’t much space for them to move. It took a couple minutes but we finally made it to the front, just as another man approached the post guard holding the man who had first fallen into him. This man had malicious intent written all over his face. My eyes caught a glint in the hand he was holding beside his thigh. Putting a hand on my weapon at my hip, I raised my other palm out in a halting gesture.
“Stand down!” I ordered. But before the human had a moment do so or even speak a word, the green soldier I’d just been joking with, drew his gun, aimed and felled the man in one seamless move. Seamless, but definitely flawed. Jerking my head to the rookie, I shouted, “Hold your fire!” I rushed to the now unconscious man, just as someone else rushed towards me. Unwilling to shoot another person, I whipped my arm out, fist connecting the person’s jaw with a sickening thud. They’d be lucky if I hadn’t broken their jaw. As the person fell back, I checked the man that had been shot, looking for a weapon… except, there wasn’t one. Rather, held in his now lax fist was a syringe with a capped needle. While wondering what sort of poison it contained, I heard a murmur through the yelling. It was faint, but my selective hearing allowed me to focus on it.
“Medicine,” it rasped. Glancing over at the body I had sent flying, I finally noticed it was female. Cursing, I rushed over to her, seeing that she was barely staying conscious. Her hard hat had flown off, whether from me knocking her or her hitting the ground, I wasn’t sure. Her eyelids fluttered as her head lolled to one side and her lips moved, this time the words barely understandable.
I leaned closer. “What?”
“Medicine,” came the breathless word before she lost consciousness.
I frowned in confusion but in the next second, it dawned on me. I stumbled back to the man that had been shot, grabbed the syringe and stared at it. It didn’t bear any marks, but it wasn’t surprising for the workers to have inferior pharmaceuticals. I looked up at the man the post guard was still struggling with and realized the worker was jerking uncontrollably, his limbs rigid. Standing, I walked over to them both, seeing that the guard looked just as confused as the rest of us, rather than fearful of his wellbeing. Still, if this was medicine, I had no idea how to administer it. Sure, I knew about syringe needles, but where you put it into the person you were giving it to mattered, if I recalled.
Then from the crowd, a female called, “His arm! You put it in his shoulder!” Though I couldn’t see who had spoken, I nodded my appreciation, kneeled down, pulled my cap off and plunged the needle into the man’s shoulder, straight through his shirt. As I pushed the plunger, the liquid rushed down. When the syringe was empty, I pulled it out and waited. After a few seconds, the man’s shaking began to slow and his muscles started to relax – just in time for the medic on site to rush in and take over. He directed the guard to roll the worker over and ran the med-scanner over him. While he did, I turned back to the other two unconscious workers, feeling all kinds of guilt for both of them. As I glanced up, I saw the young soldier who had shot the man and jerked my chin to A’Res. He had read my mind and turned the younger male around, guiding him away from the scene.
That taken care of, I started to update the medic. “This male has been shot. We’ll need immediate extraction. The female worker also needs attention.”
He nodded and made a report in his comms unit attached to his shoulder. Five minutes later, the male I’d given the shot to started to come round and was murmuring apologies to the guard while the medic had moved on to staunch the wound on the other male. I was left awkwardly watching over the female. She hadn’t regained consciousness, not for lack of trying to wake her on my part. Short of slapping her awake, there wasn’t much more I could do. Some people, using three mobile stabilizers – one at the head, one at the feet and one on the buttocks – moved the two men to the elevator. When it looked as though they weren’t coming back to collect the female, I called out, “Halt! What about the female?”
The lead medic, Chauser, leaned forward, poking his head out from the slowly closing doors and said, “Not enough room. I’ll be back for her soon.”
Dejectedly, I nodded, then looked down at the still unconscious human female. Without her hard hat, the overhead light bounced off her auburn hair, which was tied in two braids, one on each side of her head. I saw the red mark above her temple where she’d landed when her head, still in its hard hat, hat struck the ground. It was starting to match the purple and red swelling along her jaw where my fist had connected with it. When the elevator returned empty, my patience ran out. Quickly, I scooped the tiny woman in my arms and pushed my way through the crowd that had started to file into the lift.
“Move! Move!” I growled. No one dared to oppose me and soon I and the burden I carried were on board.
The ride up seemed excruciating. This was not because she was heavy. As a M’Nai soldier, I was required to go through heavy weight training and her weight was nothing compared to the standard necessary to complete the course and maintain the fitness for the bi-monthly evaluations. It was the anxiety of getting her to the med bay that had me gritting my teeth. A small sound from her had me thinking she was coming round, but when I looked down, she was still just as absent from the world as she had been a few minutes ago. I ignored the quick flickering of her lashes and the heat on my back from the uncanny feeling I was being observed. What did they expect me to do? Leave her there? The M’Nai may be practical to the point of callousness but we always attended to our people, no matter their status.
Finally, we stopped and the doors slid open. Thankfully, the others on board exited and moved to the side to allow me to step off quickly. The bustle of people, humans and M’Nai alike, was much more pronounced on this level. Although still underground, the UV light we filtered through to keep the humans healthy meant the large space looked like daylight, just as it was on the surface. The space was four square miles worth of supported livable space, resting on top of the refinery and mines below. We all lived in a high-tech village, thanks to the M’Nai technology and resources. So why the med bay was at least a half mile from the main access to the mines was beyond my understanding.
When I finally entered the main lobby, bypassing the M’Nai technician posted there, I rushed into the main care room. Though larger than the lobby where patients would sit and wait to be seen, the care room was only equipped with ten beds.
“Assistance, please!” I called. Not waiting for a response, I laid her down on the first empty bed I found. The care room wasn’t exactly busy and while I did see the other two men being worked on, there were still a few people who could be spared. A med-tech approached me, brows raised at what I’d just placed on the bed. Humans were seen there every day, so I doubted it was that; it had more to do with the fact that I’d carried one in myself. It wasn’t every day that a M’Nai soldier got close to a human, much less carried one like I’d just done.
I ignored his reaction. “She needs tending to,” I told him.
With observing eyes, he checked over her unmoving form. “Mmm,” he murmured, and taking out a pocket scanner, he passed it over her body from head to toe. Reading the results, he nodded to himself and then turned away. He took a half step before he belatedly stopped and turned to smile at me. “She’ll be taken care of, corporal.” As if I need not worry about her any longer, my job done, he turned back and walked away.
I was feeling a little out of my element. I mean, what the hell was I doing here in the first place? I should have just let the other humans care for her. They were a hovering sort of people; always in each other’s business. She would have been fine had I gone on about my own duties.
After a few minutes of waiting, I grew irritated. It was apparent the woman had a concussion, but it wasn’t nearly as worrisome as the men who had been brought in ahead of her. Still, there were clearly a couple of med-techs milling about behind a desk. Did the job require both of them? Could one not come over and check on…
“T’Laurish!” A male’s voice broke me out of my spiraling thoughts. Whipping around, I gazed at the private standing at the entrance of the medical ward.
I lifted a brow at him, “Yes?”
He was a younger male, but not as green as someone who had just graduated from training. “You’re needed in the mines. The colonel has requested your briefing of the…incident.”
Frowning, I found myself hesitant to leave the female’s side. The thought alone made me uncomfortable. Since when did I care about a worker’s wellbeing? Besides, she’d be fine, I thought. I turned to give her prone figure one last glance and then forced myself away, following the male out into the busy street.