Author: Kheryn Casey
My balcony overlooks the satellite. Steam rises from the black ground below. The fluorescent sun hums down from the top of the dome, illuminating the colony as though it’s on display – as though the satellite is a glass box, made just for the universe to peer into and smile. White light shines down on the twisting streets and the tilting complexes and the human beings. The faint wails of sirens bounce across the stretch of uneven towers. Far below, the tops of heads push across the road like blood cells pulsing through a vein. They bump and shove in a steady stream. The edge of the great barrier wall looms like a mountain in the distance.
My mother stands behind me. She’s a tall woman – taller than most men, and certainly taller than me. She holds her height with pride. It’s intimidating. I, on the other hand, haven’t grown into my height even after sixteen years. My mother complains that I hunch. I won’t look at her, but I can hear her breathing. She does it slowly. In and out. A perfect demonstration of calm. I’ve never been able to control myself as well as she can.
“Why are you being so difficult?” she asks. “Most girls would be grateful. At the very least excited.”
If she’s waiting for an answer, I won’t give her the satisfaction. The skin covering my knuckles tightens as I grip my balcony’s railing. The heat on the satellite follows no matter where I go. It makes my fingers slick with sweat. My mother realizes that I’m refusing to speak. She sighs as though I’m a child.
“What are you trying to prove?”
I’m not trying to prove anything. That’s not what I’m trying to do.
“This is an important tradition, Sigourney. I need you to follow it.”
When I don’t respond, my mother walks to the door. “Get ready to leave, then. I’ll be downstairs.” She pauses. “Don’t keep me waiting.” The door clicks shut behind her.
I stare at the people below. I count the seconds until I’m sure that a good amount of time has passed – that I’ve kept my mother waiting long enough. I stride into my bedroom and snap the balcony doors shut. I tug the drapes close, burying myself in a grainy shadow. The ornate designs covering my bedroom walls seem to ripple and sag, and the imported paintings of beautiful women crack with decade’s old dust. The marbled tile floors shine like the white of an eye, even in the dim light.
My mother thinks it’s important to follow tradition. She believes that following tradition is safe. You don’t stand out if you do what everyone else is doing. No one can hear you if you say what everyone else is saying. Blending in is camouflage. Protection. Being noticed is dangerous.
She might be right, but I that doesn’t mean I like it. I doubt I ever will.
I pull on my black uniform, smoothing out the creases in my pants and tying the laces on my shoes. I button my collar and tuck in my top. The shirt clings to my chest, reminding me that I’m not as shapely as my mother is. I often imagine her comparing the two of us and saying, “What a shame. She looks too much like her father.” I really do look a lot more like him – or the paintings of him that hang in the hall, anyway – with my tightly coiled hair and my dark eyes and my brown skin. My hair is proud, too proud to be told to lay flat or allow a comb to shape it any which way, so most days I just let it be. My black eyes are as solid as the onyx jewels my mother likes to hang around her neck, and my brown skin is dark enough to seem purple at times. People have called me beautiful, despite the flatness in my chest and hips, and I know that I am, but that’s not the type of thing I pay so much attention to. Not as much as my mother says that I should, anyway.
I walk down the stairs. My mother doesn’t say anything about the time it took me to join her, though she watches me to let me know that she isn’t pleased. Together, we leave for the slavehouse.
The boys on display are behind glass walls lining the edges of the hall. Their cages are so narrow that there’s only enough space for them to stand. They can’t move. They can barely breathe. They squint in the white light that shines down on top of their heads. The cages, blue and clear, were made so the slaves can’t see out of them. When they open their eyes, all they can see is a black mirror and a reflection of themselves. That’s what I was told, anyway, but I still feel nervous whenever I walk in front of them. I still feel their eyes following me as I pass them by.
The boys here are the sons of criminals – murderers, perhaps, or men and women that couldn’t pay their taxes. Some of the boys might even be criminals themselves, arrested by the military for smaller offenses – something simple like petty theft or breaking curfew. It doesn’t matter what the offense is. Once a citizen of our satellite breaks any military law, they relinquish their rights and are sold as slaves. Those who commit particularly offensive crimes have a choice between execution and the labor camps beyond the great barrier wall.
There are the rumors, of course, that some slaves never broke a law – that they were set up and arrested by Federation officers for no good reason at all – but that’s not the sort of thing my mother wants me to talk about.
The hall is filled with polite laughter. Wine glasses clink. Sweet perfume drifts through the air and burns my nose. Dresses made of ruffles and lace slide across the marbled floor. The walls shine like porcelain. A group of women and one man dressed in uniform stand together in front of a cage and whisper as they examine the boy inside. They eye him as though he’s a statue – a piece of art to be analyzed – and gesture and smile. The back of one boy’s cage opens and he’s pulled out, having been bought and sold. The sound of a piano spills into the hall.
My mother’s heels snap on the marbled floor. She clicks her tongue impatiently as we walk. She wants me to hurry and make a decision, even though we’ve only just arrived. “Do you know which one you want?” she asks.
I press my lips into my mouth to stop myself from answering. My mother already knows that I don’t want a slave. Many girls on the satellite receive a male slave for their sixteenth birthday. Owning a slave of opposite gender is supposed to be a symbol of entering adulthood – a birthday present for society’s debutantes. My mother claims that she wants me to follow tradition, but really, buying a slave is only an opportunity for her to prove that a person such as me can afford to own another human being. She doesn’t want anyone to think otherwise.