WARNING: This poem includes graphic descriptions of slavery, shock collars, abuse by aliens, abduction, torture, air pressure loss, and assorted other mayhem. If those are touchy subjects for you, please think twice before clicking through.
Bembé never accepted the collar
the way some of his fellow captives did.
He fought the aliens every time
that they came for him,
plucking him out of the slave cage
with their long thin limbs like the claws of crabs.
They shocked him every time he fought them,
stroking the colorful controls of the collar
so that it bit into his skin with blue light,
crackling and snapping under his chin.
He cursed and kicked at them
even as his nerves blazed with pain,
arms and legs jerking out of his control.
They shocked him unconscious,
so that he woke with a ring of blisters
bubbling up from his brown skin,
and still Bembé refused to yield.
There were a few others, too,
who fought as he fought --
not many, but enough for company.
The Cangrejos had once
put Lur to work in the kitchen
because she was a woman
and they thought that was
what human women were for.
She broke their stick-legs with an iron pan.
After that they did not give her any more tools
and left her in the slave cage to the right of Bembé.
Homero occupied the slot to Bembé's left.
He was taller and stronger than Bembé,
his skin a rich golden tan under which
the muscles rolled like big hills.
The Cangrejos had wanted him
to lift and carry things for them.
Instead Homero dropped things on them,
so they put him behind bars.
Sometimes the Cangrejos tried
to use them against each other.
They would take out a captive
and when that one misbehaved,
shock the others instead.
Lur swore at them in Spanish and English,
clenched her fingers around the collar
and spat blood through the bars of her cage.
Homero screamed at Bembé
to fight them harder, harder.
Bembé was all for that.
When the Cangrejos pinned him down
he still managed to rip loose the eyestalk
from one of them so that its eyeball
ran down his hand like black ink.
The alien shrieked, its voice
like nails scraping along slate.
The others threw Bembé back into his cage
and dragged their injured compatriot from the room.
Lur was weeping in a corner
as she unclenched her pale fingers
from around the collar.
"Homero," she choked, pointing,
and Bembé saw that he lay
slumped against the bars, unmoving.
Bembé reached through and
patted Homero's cheeks
until his eyes fluttered open
and he gave a bloody smile at the trophy
still clenched in Bembé's other hand.
There was a bit of butter left in Bembé's pan,
which he spread carefully over the blisters
already rising under their collars.
It was not the best thing to put on burns
but it was all they had.
"They may kill you this time,"
Lur said, looking at Bembé
through the black riot of her curls.
"Then I'll be free," Bembé said.
It was not that he wanted to die,
but rather that he feared subjugation
far more than he feared death.
It was better to die a man
than to live a slave.
Homero laced his fingers with Bembé
and said, "If you go, we go."
Such loyalty made Bembé's heart
leap and kick in his chest.
This was no place for such feelings,
but they happened anyway.
The ship quivered, then,
and they stopped talking.
They had not felt anything like that before.
"What do you think --" Bembé began,
and the ship shuddered around them,
ringing like a garbage can hit by a bat.
"My ears popped," Homero said.
"Mine too," said Lur,
and Bembé's went just then.
The air pressure was dropping.
Bembé could not hold hands
with both of his friends at the same time,
but he could stretch out across the cage
and reach Lur with his feet.
If the ship lost its air, then at least
none of them would have to die alone.
Then something even stranger happened:
Bembé felt thoughts sliding through his head
that were not his own, were alien,
warm and worried and urgent.
"Did you hear that?"
"Someone in your head?"
"Maybe ...?" said Lur.
"I feel something,
but I don't know what."
"No, nothing here,"
It touched Bembé again,
like a hand tugging his sleeve.
"I can't. We're locked in here,"
Bembé said, hoping against hope
that the stranger in his head would understand.
There was a thoughtful pause.
Then the entire room groaned and bent,
right angles abruptly becoming acute.
The cage doors moaned as they
tore loose from their locks and hinges.
Bembé was the smallest of them
and managed to squirm free,
collecting fresh scrapes along the way.
Lur almost had enough room,
but not quite, and he had to stop her
before she tore herself apart in the attempt.
called the voice.
"I'm not leaving without them,"
He found a strut that had come loose
and used it to pry Lur's bars wider
so that she could get out,
though the bars gouged long tracks
along her stomach as she escaped.
Then the three of them attacked the door
on Homero's cage, which they had to
wrench completely off in order to free him.
"Which way do we go?"
Lur said. "I can't tell."
This way, said the voice,
and Bembé followed the inward tug.
His friends ran with him,
and as they went, they gathered up
what other people they could find,
urging them along to whatever lay ahead.
They were panting for breath,
the air getting thinner and thinner.
It got harder for Bembé to see
as the edges of his vision darkened.
Then suddenly a rubbery tube of flesh
sucked him up, swallowing him along its length,
until it let him out in a soft white space.
Bembé pushed himself to hands and knees,
shaking his head to clear it.
There was air here, thin and cool
but gradually getting better.
Welcome home, said the voice,
so much richer and brighter now,
resonating down through his bones.
You are safe here.
Bembé looked around
at the pearly place he found himself.
"Where is here?" he asked.
I am here, the voice replied.
An image appeared on the wall,
showing the vast slaver ship mostly engulfed
by something far larger that resembled
a starfish which had swallowed a beachball,
its ebony limbs flecked with brilliant silver.
Some call my kind godships.
You are inside me, with the rest of my people.
"Where is everyone?" Bembé asked.
He worried about Lur and Homero.
Reassurance washed over him,
soft and warm as seafoam.
They are safe also, the godship said.
Come, sit up. Let me take care of you.
Bembé found the seat that stuck out of the wall
and managed to haul himself into it.
Thick appendages like tentacles
emerged from the wall, winding around
his collar until it came away from his throat
with a squeal of distressed metal.
"Free," he murmured.
As soon as he leaned back,
something dragged over the back of his neck.
"Stop it," Bembé protested. "That hurts."
Even with the collar gone, the blisters
left a miserable reminder of his captivity.
The discomfort is temporary.
It will fade as your wounds heal,
the godship assured him.
A sense of comfort came with the words,
firm and gentle, like a hand clasping his shoulder
even though the contact was all in his head.
Then the touch came again,
like someone licking him,
and the harsh rasp of the tongue-thing
over burned skin made his breath catch.
Bembé noticed, though,
that the back of his neck was going numb
as the contact moved around the side,
following the line left by the collar.
He lifted a hand and found the blisters
covered by thick, sticky stuff that was
rapidly drying into a protective coating.
"Well, it's better than butter,"
Bembé told himself.
He gritted his teeth and held still
for the godship's attentions the same way
he had submitted to Lur and Homero in the past.
Another tentacle reached around
to clean the wide scrapes on his chest,
leaving behind a layer of goo.
At least the hovering touch in his mind
helped distract him from the pain.
Who are you? the voice wondered.
"My name is Bembé. What's yours?"
he said in return.
The godship's name was a squall of radio
punctuated by gasps of static.
Bembé chuckled. "I can't pronounce that.
How about I just call you Estrella?"
Acceptance and amusement
rippled through the link, silent laughter.
It is much the same with my other people,
"What other people?" Bembé asked.
He did not know if other humans
had been captured before,
though it seemed possible.
But the image that flashed on the wall
showed small furry creatures
no larger than dogs, with huge dark eyes
and flaps of skin connecting all their limbs
that let them glide through the air.
Some of them had vivid auburn fur
starred with longer tufts of white,
while others were gray brindled with
narrow bands of black and mossy green.
About a century ago, I rescued their ancestors
from a lunar colony torn apart by moonquakes,
the godship explained. My kind are happier
when we have people inside of us.
I hope that you will not frighten each other.
"I wasn't scared of the alien crabs,"
Bembé said. "I guess I can handle
your little fuzzballs too."
Bembé was beginning to understand
why Estrella's kind were called godships:
they were so vast and powerful,
yet also so gentle and protective.
The seat nudged Bembé into motion again,
and he realized that his burns
had stopped hurting altogether.
A round hole opened in the wall before him,
almost like a mouth, with a bright hallway beyond.
Come, see to your people, said Estrella.
I think they are as worried about you
as you are about them.
"You think?" Bembé said sharply.
"Haven't you been talking with them too?"
If not, Lur and Homero were probably hostile
and the slaves would doubtless be panicking.
Not everyone can hear me as clearly as you can,
Estrella explained. This one can sense me --
there was an image of Lur --
but this one cannot -- that was Homero.
A few of the others can feel but not hear me,
but most of them are too full of fear for me to reach.
Bembé hurried forward, following
the sound of human voices now.
The hallway let out into a much larger space
filled with what looked like most of the people
who had been on the slaver ship.
The slaves were huddled together in clusters,
Lur and Homero moving among them.
Bembé ran to his friends and hugged them.
They looked well enough, their injuries tended
in the same manner as his own.
The long gouges on Lur's belly were sealed
by a clear, glistening cover of some kind.
It seemed to speed healing, because
they were already edged by the glossy pink
of new skin, and the collar-burns
on her neck and Homero's looked the same.
"The feeling in my head insisted that you were alive
and that we were safe, but I didn't know for sure,"
Lur said as she clung to Bembé.
"This is a godship, and I'm calling her Estrella,"
Bembé explained, patting the nearest wall.
"She rescued us from the slavers, and ...
she is offering us a home here, if we want it."
"It'll do," Homero said. "We got no way
to get back to Earth from here."
That was painfully true.
They didn't know where they were,
if it was even in the same galaxy.
Lur gave a sharp laugh.
"I can't help but think of what Mami would say:
Algunos nacen bajo una estrella, y otros estrellado."
Some are born under a star, and others smacked by the stars.
None of them had any pity for the Cangrejos,
who after all had brought it upon themselves.
Then came a rustle among the slaves,
people skittering back toward the walls,
making way for something --
and two little aliens walked between them,
the male red-brown and the female gray-green.
Lur and Homero stepped up
on either side of Bembé, flanking him.
"Do you know these monkeys?"
Homero asked him.
"They are ... Los Salvados ...
the ones Estrella rescued before us,"
Bembé explained. He turned to the slaves.
"Nobody bother these people.
They were here before us; this is their home."
Wary nods responded.
The aliens stopped in front of Bembé
and spoke in a chirping, chittering tongue
that he could not understand.
They offer you greetings and welcome,
"Thank you," said Bembé.
"Well, I can't pronounce your names,
so I'll call you Pirro" -- he pointed at the red male --
"and Mirana." He pointed at the gray female.
They looked at him, looked at each other,
and chittered again.
Their name for you means Lightning-Fighter,
said Estrella. They are greatly impressed
by your resistance. Few can withstand the collars.
"Huh," said Bembé. "Well, I'm Cuban.
My people have been fighting collars
for a long time now."
Pirro and Mirana beckoned
with their odd webbed paws.
If you follow them, said Estrella,
they will lead you to a place where you can rest.
"Everybody go with the nice tour guides,"
Bembé said, and people did.
The Salvados led them through a new hallway
that looked like a tunnel of jungle,
with odd shapes along the walls
as if vines and branches twined together.
The aliens scampered along at eye-level,
showing the humans doorways here and there
that opened onto round rooms large enough
to hold a handful of people each.
Inside lay padded spaces to serve as beds.
The slaves clung to each other
in their little groups, not families,
but the closest they had in this place.
Like Bembé and Homero and Lur, they had
found what comfort they could in each other.
The rooms gave each cluster its own space,
and Bembé hoped that the people
who could sense Estrella as Lur could
were spread out among them, so that
they would have at least a little connection
and not feel hopelessly lost and frightened here.
Bembé slowed to a stop at the next door,
watching it gradually iris open to reveal the room.
He felt exhausted after all that had happened.
It hardly seemed real, except for the eyeball-ink
still staining his hand and the godship
curled around him and his friends.
He just wanted to lie down and not move.
Gentle paws patted his shoulder,
urging him toward the room.
Pirro chirped concern at him.
Come in, said Estrella.
This can be your place.
You need to rest.
"I'm too tired to move," Bembé muttered.
Homero half-carried him to one of the bed spaces
and lowered him onto the cushiony surface,
then spooned behind him for the first time.
Lur curled herself against Bembé's belly,
together now as they had not been able
to come close on the slaver ship.
The door squeezed itself closed behind them.
A membrane crept over the three of them,
blood-warm and comforting,
the air smelling faintly of flowers.
Everything here was so strange, though;
Bembé still felt tense, unable to relax.
Sleep, said the godship.
I will keep you safe.
Bembé had never been particularly devout,
but he remembered how Estrella
had crushed the slaver ship during the rescue.
Yes ... this was a promise he could trust.
Bembé snuggled a little closer to Homero,
tucked his face against Lur's dark curls,
and finally let himself fall asleep.
* * *
Read about Cuban names.
Historically, slaves and other captives have used many overt and covert ways of resisting.
Cangrejos is Spanish for "crabs," a nickname the humans gave to the aliens based on appearance.
Cuban ethnicity is mixed, primarily Spanish and African in origin. There is also some other European ancestry, a dab of Asian, and very little of the original Native American left. So that's why the three main human characters look different from each other. Homero is a Hispanic shade of golden tan so possibly of Andalusian descent, Bembé is an African shade of dark brown, and Lur is fair-skinned Hispanic so possibly of Catalan descent.
Unsalted butter can soothe a burn by protecting the damaged skin from air. However, it's not recommended, and there are usually better options.
Uncontrolled decompression is a major hazard in space. What happens here is severe structural trauma to the slaver ship, followed by a leak in the gray area between slow and rapid decompression: just fast enough to notice, but slow enough that people have time to respond before the hypoxia becomes critical.
Read about starfish and their anatomy. A godship has a large central body with slimmer limbs emerging from it, something like this.
The earlier residents of the godship resemble Sunda colugos, found throughout southeast Asia.
"Algunos nacen bajo una estrella; otros estrellado."
Some are born under a star; others smacked by the stars.
-- Cuban proverb
1. (= en forma de estrella) star-shaped
2. [cielo] starry, star-spangled
3. (= destrozado) smashed, shattered
4. (Culin) [huevo] fried
Los Salvados means "the safe/saved ones." Salvado is related to the more widely used salvador for "savior," and can refer to salvage or gleanings.
Cuban history contains a mess of slavery and rebellion. Although issues of race and oppression are connected by the transatlantic slave trade spanning multiple nations, each culture developed its own flavor. The Cuban branch and the African-American branch therefore have some common ground, but also different details.
Skin-hunger is a need for healthy touch, experienced by most humans and other primates. Without it, people tend to develop various problems. So isolation, as in slave cages, can do serious harm. It can also impair relationships, although these characters have managed to get past that at least somewhat by making do with small touches. You can see why they cuddled up at the first opportunity.
There are ways of building trust and creating a safe space. This is more difficult -- and more important -- for survivors of abuse and other trauma. Such experiences can impair relationships. There are resources for survivors and also tips for care providers working with survivors. It's even more challenging when the rescuer is vastly larger than the victims, not the same species, and has very different manipulatory appendages.