Megan was aware first of intense thirst and a pounding headache. She tried to bring her hand up to massage her forehead, and felt confused when she found she couldn't. She shook herself, heard the clinking of chains.
As the mental fog began to clear, the agonized thought ran through her mind on a short loop, They caught me, They caught me, They caught me...
She was sitting on a padded bench in a small room that contained nothing else but a portable toilet in addition to the bench. Her wrists, as she determined by feeling around them with her fingers, were surrounded by wide metal bands, sporting rings on the inside of her wrists that were locked together behind her back. With an effort she twisted to bring the bands into view. They appeared to be the same as the ones she could see, and feel, around her ankles, which were connected by a chain about a foot long.
Aside from the metal restraint bands, she was otherwise completely naked. There was no sign of her flight suit in the room.
Furious at being caught, still more furious that anyone would do this to her, she struggled to free herself from the bands and the chains. Despite no indication that her efforts were accomplishing anything, she continued for several minutes, stopping when the pain in her wrists grew to the point that she knew she was harming herself, and she told herself she needed to be in peak physical condition to handle whatever was to come.
There were no windows in the room, and just a single door. The door had no handle or knob, at least on this side. Most likely it opened, as most modern doors did, by sensing the proximity of someone standing in front of it. Megan was accustomed, by a lifetime of practice, to approaching doors and waiting; some would open to anyone, and some would open to persons wearing the right badge.
Awkwardly, Megan stood and shuffled to the door, her hobble chain clinking along the floor. Unsurprisingly, it didn't open for her. She returned to the bench.
She needed to pee. The toilet, she found, was of a standard type that took in her wastes and sprayed her bottom with water afterward, leaving her clean but wet. If she found herself needing a bowel movement, she knew it would incinerate her wastes into a fine ash after she arose from it. Its presence seemed to indicate, she observed glumly, that she would be here awhile. Though in that case, someone was going to need to bring in food.
She tried to remain calm. I am a Space Force officer, she reminded herself forcefully. I'm trained to be ready to handle any threat.
It only helped a little.
Just as she was preparing to shout the question of whether anyone was out there and listening, she jumped as the door whispered open. A man walked in, smiled, and pulled a chair in after him. He was holding what appeared to be a water bottle.
Megan stifled the instinct to bend forward and try to cover her exposed breasts and the very private cleft between her legs. In her entire life, no man had seen her naked, and in her adult life no woman had either, other than those with whom she was willing to share intimacies. She was outraged that this right to the privacy of her body had been taken away from her, but she refused to give this man the satisfaction of seeing his power over her confirmed. Dignity comes from inside, not from clothes, she told herself. I'm not going to yield up my dignity by showing fear. I'll show him my body, but not that.
The man held up the bottle. "Water?"
Megan was disgusted when she looked at the bottle more closely. It had an oversized nipple, reminiscent of a penis while not actually looking like one. Accepting water in this form would be intensely demeaning.
But refusing water, in any form, was beyond the power of her will. She glared at him and nodded. He held the bottle in front of her, and she lunged for the nipple.
After taking just enough to take the edge off her thirst, she sat back, suppressing the reflex of thanking him. She was positive the water didn't come free.
The man, with elaborate casualness, now sat in the chair, made himself comfortable in it, and then spoke. "How are you feeling, Major Megan Duchain?"
She gasped. "How..."
He waved the question away with a gesture. "Let's get past all that. I know you don't remember the last couple of days, but you've done a lot of talking. We've got some excellent truth drugs here. We know you came here to rescue your sister. We know your ship's computer was damaged, and that it's generating no signal that Earth can detect, and that you stole the ship and no one on Earth knew where you were going, so you're not going to be followed here. So don't bother with the old 'reinforcements are coming in right behind me' dodge. None of that will work."
Megan's fears started bubbling back to the surface. She asked bitterly, "So why are you in here? Forget to ask some questions before?"
To her surprise, he smiled. The smile occupied the borderline between friendly and an annoying smirk. She automatically assigned it to the latter category. Smile or no, she had to assume she was in danger, and remain vigilant. He said quietly, "No, actually, I was going to let you ask some questions. My name is Dion, by the way. Short for Dionysus." She recognized it as the name of a Greek god. Well, she thought, they've been calling themselves gods. Apparently it gets more specific than that. Dionysus was often characterized as the "god of fun." I should tell him I'm not having much fun here, she thought.
Dion continued, "Anyway, questions. Ask away to your heart's content. I'll answer anything I'm authorized to answer. Fire away."
She couldn't see any harm in playing his game. Any information she might get could be helpful. She decided to start with the most obvious question. "Why do you want to answer my questions?"
"Can't you guess? We treasure the chance to tell all about our world to one woman who can understand it. Believe me, that's a thrill. I have a camera hooked over my ear," Megan saw him gesture, "So this will be widely viewed."
Great, she thought. She could not imagine a more humiliating way for a Space Force officer to be viewed: naked and helpless in chains, and seen that way not just by Dion, but by untold numbers of men not present.
But still, as long as he was giving information... "Is my sister alive?"
"We knew you'd ask that one. I promise to answer it if the proper context arises."
Megan gritted her teeth in frustration. What the hell, she wondered, does that mean? Is it a Yes or a No? Since she had no power to compel him to answer, she decided she could only move on for now. She couldn't afford to bypass the chance to get answers to as many questions as possible. She didn't see a reason, not yet, to give up completely on somehow escaping. It wasn't possible right at this moment, but the future might hold unexpected opportunities.
She thought back to her most searing memory from her search within the building. "Those women, in those tanks. They are the... source? Of the female population, I mean."
"I'm sure that's obvious."
"Why did you..." She struggled with her rage. If there was any possible way out of this, she needed a clear head. "Why did you mutilate them?"
"Well, under the circumstances, they don't really need arms and legs, do they? Besides, that was one more thing their bodies could provide us with."
Shit, she thought. She'd already been aware that they consumed women as food. But she still hated being reminded. "You know what civilized society thinks of cannibals."
"Come on, where else are we going to get meat? You know there's no indigenous animal life. We stretched out our supplies as long as we could, and then we had to go veggie for a long while. It wasn't till the first generation of offspring grew to maturity that we could start being carnivores again."
Any number of retorts occurred to her, but mention of the early days brought to her mind the whole question of how things on this planet had become the way they now were. "The first generation of offspring came from... the crew."
"You're stating the obvious again."
"How... If what I saw were all of the women you are using for... breeders..." She nearly choked on the word. "How have there come to be so many women here in thirty years? I counted forty-nine women in those tanks. Seven tanks with seven each. That hardly seems to account for what I've seen."
"Oh, well, we've improved just a little on Mother Nature. We've found we can implant a fertilized egg in an already pregnant woman. Just a matter of the right hormones suppressing certain defensive reactions. So they're each carrying multiple fetuses at different stages of development. It helps that they're completely immersed in amniotic fluid. That's what's in the tank, by the way. You know, we keep implanting, harvesting, implanting, harvesting. The amniotic sac wouldn't stand for all that diddling under normal circumstances, so you might say we've extended the sac to encompass the mother herself. Occasionally a baby is born prematurely. We let it finish developing in that case, outside the mother but still attached."
Megan winced, glad she hadn't seen an example of that. "How often do you... impregnate the women? In the tanks."
"The machinery actually does it, of course. So automatic that it doesn't require very much supervision." Megan remembered the metal caps the women were wearing, trailing wires. Probably monitoring their brains to keep track of the state of their bodies, she thought. They'd have to do something like that, if they weren't actively watching. "We impregnate each of the breeders once every four weeks. So at any given time, each is carrying at least nine, usually ten fetuses in various stages of development." No wonder, Megan thought with a shudder, they each look so extraordinarily full. "The machinery also detects childbirth -- I should add the human body is a pretty amazing machine itself, and each fetus, with rare premature exceptions as I said, somehow knows when it is ready to emerge. Leaving behind nine siblings." Megan's jaw dropped, and her horror mounted as he continued. "We make the eggs ourselves, fertilized with a full complement of the breeder's chromosomes. After each birth, a new egg is implanted..."
"Wait, why take all the chromosomes from the same... woman?" Megan refused to keep saying "breeder." "Why not mix them? All you're seeing are the same seven faces, over and over again."
"I'll bet you can figure that out yourself."
The answer came to Megan, and made her that much more angry. "You... It's your way to dehumanize them even more. You look around and see those seven faces, as dogs, as draft horses. As dollies for you to play with. It's like they're mass-produced machines, all identical, rolling off the assembly lines. Machines, and not people, in their infinite variety. You do it this way so you don't have to see them as human."
Dion shrugged. "They're women."
"So..." Megan stopped herself, aware suddenly that Dion's statement had a meaning for him entirely different from her own interpretation. Women, he was saying, are meant to be machinery. Megan believed that because these were women, they didn't deserve such treatment. Dion, and the rest of the gods, believed that because these were women, they did deserve it. If human, they were an underclass of humanity. Megan worked to throttle back her anger once more. "So how do you get boys?"
"Oh, for one in every twenty births, half of the chromosomes in the egg are replaced with the genes from a sperm donor, including a Y-chromosome. That's where the boys come from. They're raised separately, usually by the donors themselves. The fathers. Most get some schooling and learn a trade. A few get more intense, high-level training, so that they can take over our work when we are gone."
Megan sighed. "So each year you get... what's thirteen times forty-nine... about six hundred babies out of those tanks? Nearly all female?"
"Yes. That's sufficient for our needs."
She shook her head, painful as the motion was. Her head still throbbed, probably an aftereffect of whatever drugs they had given her. "So every one of those women in the tanks, they're each constantly pregnant with ten babies??"
"Well, it's not like all ten are full-term at any one time. Several of them are pretty tiny. It's probably like a normal mother carrying triplets. Or quads at the most."
"Why do you do it to them at all? Women on Earth have reproduced for centuries without going through pregnancy."
"Ah, you see, that's where you Earth folks have a little advantage on us. We brought as much state-of-the-art technology with us as we could, as you know, but cell fertilization has always been a tricky process, and we simply haven't managed to get cells to divide by mechanical means. We've only been able to do it within the environment of the womb. So we're forced to do it this way." He chuckled. "Not that we've really been making much effort to improve the technique. We're satisfied with it as it is."
Megan suppressed a growl. Satisfied. That seemed to sum it up. These men found it satisfactory to treat women as things, as objects. As baby factories. As meat. As beasts of burden. As toys.
"So then you wait, what, eighteen years for the babies to mature? You've got lots of patience, I guess."
She could hear the smirk in his voice without looking. "Maybe not so much. We've improved on nature there too. The human body never really needed that long to mature. It's almost unheard of in the animal kingdom. In response to the right hormones and other chemicals, our babies are fully mature adults, physically and sexually, in five years. Of course, they skip a lot of the traditional necessities of growing up. Learning a language and so on. I'm talking about the females, of course. The boys grow up naturally."
"But you do train the women, somehow. I mean, how do they know to act like cows? Or horses, dogs? Or... dollies?"
"I understand you stumbled upon our sleep-teaching room. Those girls are spending most of their time in a deep sleep, being fed... what you might call dreams, but the content is under our control, not theirs. In those dreams, the ones destined to be dogs pad around on all fours, bark, eat, herd cows, whatever else we want them to learn to do. By the time we surgically alter them, they've already experienced their limited jobs for years, within their minds. It all seems natural to them. They can't imagine doing anything else. Of course, we also let them out of bed for hours a day for physical exercise. They're quite physically fit. But any conscious memories of those exercise sessions are suppressed. By the time we release them to start performing their duties, their only memories are the ones we give them."
Something wasn't making sense. "But how did you..." She gasped suddenly. She knew how the training recordings must have been made to begin with. "The original crew. You made them..."
"Create the behavior models we use for sleep-training? Exactly, yes. Not that they were terribly happy about it. But threatening their comrades with pain managed to make them sufficiently cooperative. We recorded only their physical sensations when they modeled the appropriate behaviors, not their emotional reactions to it. We substituted contentment, happiness, pleasure -- girlimals are conditioned to experience those feelings, when they do what they're supposed to be doing. Especially the dollies, of course -- intense sexual pleasure when they are performing, intense need when they are not. All in the conditioning."
Megan thought she knew what the answer to her next question must be, though she wasn't at all eager to hear it. She was already preemptively angry about it. Through gritted teeth she said, "You... maimed the crew, right? To model dog behavior, they would have to really... be like that." She breathed rapidly in and out through her nose.
She wished so much her hands were free to attack him when he nodded his head. "Not all of the crew. We only needed a few of them for that -- not including your sister, if you were wondering. As you say, it was necessary. We did have all seven model dolly behavior first, since a full body is required for that. Among the seven of them, they had quite a wide-ranging experience in sexual techniques, both hetero and homo, and we spent quite some time exploring that. All of that is programmed into our dollies now."
It was some time before Megan could go on. As for how they could have made serious, committed Space Force officers -- including Janica -- perform a full menu of sex acts with men and with each other, the explanation had already been made clear earlier: each crew member had a choice of either doing what was required or watching another crew member be subjected to unspeakable pain. Probably a pre-selected crew member and pre-specified torture, she thought. That would be the most effective way to do it. Megan seethed inside, and squeezed her left hand hard with her right, trying to release some of the pressure of her anger in the only way she had available.
When she felt ready to go on, she argued within herself whether to ask the most natural follow-up to previous one. She didn't exactly want an answer to it, but she desperately needed one. "After... After the crew were done modeling all the behaviors you wanted... then what? What did you do with them?" Since the question touched on a subject he'd already declined to go into earlier, Megan assumed she wouldn't get an answer this time either. But she had to ask.
Dion looked, somehow, like a patient teacher trying to encourage thinking in a slow child. "What would you do with something you no longer had a use for?"
The anger Megan had managed to reduce to a simmer now exploded. "YOU KILLED THEM??" She sprang to her feet, her hands writhing helplessly behind her.
Dion held up both hands in a calming gesture. "Major Duchain, I want you to really think about this. Would you want them to be alive after what they went through?"
Megan sat down abruptly, as if the question itself had knocked the legs out from under her. In a sense, it had. She wanted, oh so badly, for Janny to be alive. She had come here, leaving behind any chance of returning to the career she had loved, because she'd been so sure Janny was alive.
But... A Janny who had memories like the ones she would surely have after what had happened to her here... A Janny imprisoned, probably tortured, forced into sex slavery...
Megan would do anything to take those memories away from Janny. She would take them upon herself in a heartbeat, if it meant Janny could forget them.
And though knowing now that Janny was dead plunged Megan into a deep pit of sorrow, she was still, in some way, glad. Janny had shed her misery, her suffering. She was free.
And, bizarrely, Megan felt slightly grateful to Dion, for the way he had handled the subject. He had, as he'd said, been waiting for the right context. This was it: the knowledge, now revealed, that Janica was no longer alive, had arrived against a background of information that made Megan feel, at least in some degree, relieved.
Megan's pounding heart slowed. She took a few deep breaths, and closed her eyes.
As she returned to the here and now, a nagging thought that had eluded her consciousness swam to the surface. "How could you have known... I mean, all the equipment you're using here, for the breeders, for the sleep-teaching -- you brought it with you. You couldn't have just suddenly invented it here. It's like you knew you'd have women when you landed. How could you know that energy burst on this end of the wormhole would disable the sleepers, so they'd malfunction and you could wake up and take the crew?"
His eyes lit up. "Ah! You've made some incorrect assumptions. I remember your speculations when you were... under the influence, so to speak, that the same energy burst that damaged your ship crippled ours as well. On the contrary, the energy field is something we put there ourselves a few years ago. We do keep time in Earth years, by the way. You've no doubt noticed a Freeworld day lasts very nearly the same length as an Earth day. There are about 370 Freeworld days in an Earth year, so we fixed our clocks to run off 24 hours in a Freeworld day and then stuck an extra day or two in some of the shorter months to make a Freeworld calendar. Did you know just a few weeks ago was February 30?... Oh, anyway, the energy field. Our space scientists designed a space buoy with a sensor to keep track of the wormhole, to drift where it drifted, and to fire off an electromagnet field spike at any vehicle coming out of it. It's our planetary 'Do Not Disturb' sign." He smiled. "You were lucky to have been in such a small ship. The amount of energy a ship would absorb from the field increases with its size. A ship as big as Aurora would be destroyed. We weren't expecting one the size of yours. As to what happened to the fathership when we first arrived here..." Megan realized he was using their name for Aurora, "That was all according to our original plan."
Megan gaped at him. "That's impossible! There was no way you could execute some sort of 'plan.' You were in sleepers!"
"We weren't in sleepers before we started out, were we? Your president was so generous, letting us take any equipment we felt we needed to start a new world -- how humanitarian of her! We included, in the equipment, sensors that detected planetary landing, released a gas to be carried through the ship by the life support system and knock out the crew, and created a burst of electromagnetic energy that disabled the sleepers, allowing us to awaken. We waited inside the pods until the gas had degenerated to ineffectiveness, and emerged as the owners of the ship. That wait in the pod for the air in the cabin to clear was the most exciting fifteen minutes of my life, I assure you." He sighed with happy reminiscence.
So that was why the signal from Aurora had lasted longer than it should have! It was knocked out after they landed, not when they exited the wormhole. Megan's stomach churned. Janica and the others had been doomed from the moment they had left Earth. Megan tried to get her mind off that.
Her anger flared once more. "The cows, the dogs, the horses, the pigs. The dollies. How can you do that to people like yourselves? Women are half of the human race, and you can't deny them their humanity! These women, on this planet, they have so much potential! There's so much they can be! How can you do this to them??"
Dion sat back, crossing his arms, seemingly relaxed despite the heat of Megan's tirade. "What you are seeing, in these women, is some of the things they can be. No woman can be everything. Each of these is one thing. Your position is that they should be something else. Who are you, Megan Duchain, to say what any woman other than yourself should be?"
He paused, as if he knew Megan would be unable, on a moment's notice, to answer the question he'd posed. As indeed, she was.
Dion resumed. "The women you've seen... do they seem unhappy? Unfulfilled? Or are they contented with the lives they have? Aren't contentment and happiness something positive?"
Megan hesitated again. The women in the role of cows, or of dogs... she couldn't honestly say they were unhappy. And with his "who are you?" thrust, he'd already preempted her response that other things in life were more important.
Wait! she thought. I've seen Sissy unhappy.
But Megan admitted to herself that that unhappiness wasn't caused by who she was, by her lot in life.
But that brought to her mind a question that suddenly screamed its importance, though she hadn't been given time to consider it earlier. "Where is Sissy? The dolly you caught me with." Megan couldn't think of a reason they would have killed Sissy. She must be around somewhere. "I know you don't care about her, but I'm sure you've figured out that I do." Megan was indeed sure she wasn't giving anything away. They had found out much more than that about her during her unrecalled questioning under drugs. "Have you returned her to Jason? He shouldn't lose his dolly and have to get a new one. He hasn't done anything wrong. I know you could buy him one, but wouldn't it be simpler to give him back the one he already had?" Megan knew how happy that would make Sissy. Ecstatic, in fact.
Dion seemed about to respond, but paused, appearing to be listening to something. Apparently that was more than just a camera by his ear, and now it was giving him advice from outside. His eyes widened in surprise.
"Excuse me," he said, and left the room.
"You really want me to take this dolly to the farm with Major Duchain riding along? This whole thing of being nice to her, letting her ask questions, seemed odd to me from the start, but I think giving her what she asked for relative to the dolly and even letting her accompany me seems to be taking it well past the point of necessity."
Dion almost winced at the man's all-knowing smile.
"One of us in this room is an expert on the mind and conditioning, Dion. And it's not you."
"Okay, why, then? Why aren't we trying to simply overpower her? Why make her feel as though she has any power?"
"As I said, this isn't really up your alley, Dion. But we need her to let her guard down. She won't come to trust us consciously -- I don't imagine she could ever do that -- but we want to encourage certain things to happen on a lower level of her mind. At that level, resistance grows as hope fades. We don't want that. We need her in a receptive state."
Dion sighed. "Well, you're the one that'll get the blame if this doesn't work. I'll be sure to make my feelings known if it comes to that. But you understand why I've got a personal stake in this as well. I need to make sure you don't screw it up. We've had so few opportunities to try conditioning on a non-empty mind. I know I'm not an expert, but I also know you haven't had as much experience at this, specifically this, as you're making it sound."
"I've spent six years working on this project. Quit worrying, Dion. I'm quite confident."
Dion sighed again. "Okay, fine."