He peered through the wooden slats on the windows: It was dawn. It was dry outside but there were tall pine trees stretching high toward the sky, mingled with desert plants. If he had to guess, he’d say he was in southern California, somewhere north of where Los Angeles used to be. Or northern Arizona, up by Sedona or Flagstaff.
If he’d had a chance to study the animal life, he could be more certain—hell, they could be up near Portland for all he knew—but these quiet moments in the morning only lasted so long. It was enough to feel the breeze, understand the beauty of sunlight… and then their captors would march in, like clockwork, the same time every morning.
In a previous life, he was a pilot; a captain by the name of Tom Ridgeway. On Earth, he’d always considered himself a jet jock, obsessed with all things aerial since he was only a boy. Never in his life did he ever imagine he’d be flying his own machine in the deep of outer space. Never in anyone’s life did they think that we’d be going to war with a new kind of enemy in that deep of space.
First contact with alien life had always been imagined as a fantasy with two life forms coming together and admiring their mutual determination to discover the secrets of the universe. Do they share the same dreams? Do they, too, believe in a god?
Man’s presence in the alien planet’s solar system was immediately registered as a threat. Not necessarily a dumb decision, given humanity’s history for cruelty to itself, but a decision was made to attack the large ship. The survivors on board were either killed or tortured for information. Sometimes both.
The President and senators argued in front of televised audiences and hurled insults at each other. Some said that it was foolish to try to make contact in the first place. Others said no laws applied to this that we could ever comprehend, and it was best to leave it alone. Eventually the President won out, who said an act of terrorism could not be ignored, and an example would need to be set. A second mission, a fleet made of smaller ships assembled through the course of three years and armed with weapons, was sent as retaliation. Their mission was a failure. Captain Ridgeway never even had a chance to arm his missiles before he saw a bright flash and woke up in the prisoner colony he now found himself in. He remembered nothing of the journey there, only awakening in a room with wooden floors with a splitting headache that has never completely gone away.
His alien captors told him that a second aggression against their planet could not be tolerated and that a full-blown invasion of Earth had occurred. That’s where he was now: An Earth that had been conquered. When the captors told him this, they didn’t speak to him directly, they would lock onto his eyes and he would simply understand. He would understand the images and emotions communicated to him, and they made him ill. He saw whole cities burning and surviving humans in the fiery remains being killed swiftly and brutally.
Captain Ridgeway looked longingly toward those trees and smelled the sap’s scent being carried by the wind. It lasted only a second, but felt like an eternity to absorb those familiar senses.
He looked back at the room. There were twelve of them now. There used to be twenty-two, but ten had died from malnourishment. They were rarely fed, and when they were, it was something that Captain Ridgeway thought tasted vaguely like rabbit with a few unrecognizable vegetables thrown in as a haphazard stew. It wasn’t high in calories or fat or anything else much of sustenance and they were slowly dying off, one by one. Not that their captors minded, they were only using them for experiments, anyway, to better learn how to kill the human race.
Tom braced himself for what he knew was coming and turned away from the slats at the window that he peered through and the aliens entered, as they did each morning. The creatures looked nothing like anyone imagined them to. They slithered rather than walked; they communicated wordlessly; worst of all, they stunk in a way completely foreign to their noses. It couldn’t be simply said that they smelled rotten, or like feces… they smelled unlike anything that could be of comparison.
When they entered, the prisoners had devices affixed to their heads that effectively blinded them and they were marched outside for eighty to a hundred paces and led to a downstairs dungeon of sorts. The humans would be questioned by the aliens in their wordless interrogations for hours and hours until the sun went down and then sent back to their barracks for sleep where, the next day, the process would repeat itself. It seemed pointless given how little any of them knew about the questions being asked. No one knew the secrets about the Earth or its leaders that the aliens wanted to know. They were only soldiers in a war that had been lost before it had even begun.
The prisoners were never allowed to talk to each other. The violation of this particular rule was swiftly punished and particularly harsh. Captain Ridgeway had disobeyed this order after they had all first arrived, hoping to console a young-looking man who was weeping in the corner of the room. Immediately, the captors rushed in, subdued them both and subjected them to even more grueling hours of torture than what was usual. The kid had lost an eye before finally starving to death days later, and Ridgeway was unable to walk for a full 24 hours, crying in pain each time he so much as moved his legs.
Similarly, they were aware when the prisoners would attempt communication through hand signals (military or sign language), and from a sixth sense would be aware of it almost instantly. Communication had not been attempted upon witnessing how quickly the aliens became aware of these attempts.
Laying down for bed at night on a splintery and wooden floor, Ridegeway would listen for the sounds of the Earth he knew. He tried to listen for the distant sound of an airplane or a siren or the howl of a coyote, but heard nothing. He was unsure if the planet’s population had been so thoroughly decimated or that the POW camp was so far away from the major cities. He wondered how many other camps like this there were in the world.
The wind howled outside and he clenched his fists together and squeezed his eyes shut as he felt a hot tear slide down his cheek.
When Ridgeway awoke the next morning, he felt too weak to look through the slats and try to figure out where they were. He remained on the same spot of floor he slept on and lifted his shirt up and looked down. He could see almost all of his ribs clearly and his stomach was sunken in. He was no expert, but he felt like if this continued, he would be dead in week.
He looked to his left and a woman he knew as Sgt. Rachel Friedman was looking at him directly, and he wondered how long she had been staring at him. Her eyes were unblinking ovals.
Shit, the captain thought to himself. She’s dead.
He felt a profound sadness creep up his throat while he reached his arm out toward her and a single sob escaped him. When he did, dread immediately followed, because he know what was coming. He flopped back down on his back and awaited the inevitable.
The front door flew open and one of the creatures rushed in and grabbed him. The beings weren’t tall, but they improbably strong; they could feasibly lift a car with ease if they wished to. Ridgeway felt himself say, “No, no, no,” the first words he’d said in weeks, and wondered if his so much as even speaking would get him even more punishment than what he’d already been facing. But then, he felt glad because he doubted he could sustain much more agony and that he would die—and that would be that, the death would be his release.
The creature’s “fingers” (strong, barbed digits at the end of something that looked like a leathery whip) wrapped around Ridgeway’s arm and lifted him in the air. He looked back once more at Sgt. Friedman and saw her oval eyes blink once, hard, and then open with a fierce energy he never thought anyone in this room could be capable of anymore. She bolted up and screamed, “NOW!”
She led the attack, prying one loose board from underneath her, popping a fingernail off in the process, and using it to slam the face of their jailer. It dropped Ridgeway and focused its attention on Friedman. Ridgeway landed on his back, hard enough to hear and feel a crunch, but spun around and bounded back up. He sank his fingers into a soft area of the alien’s torso and dug in. It was to not much avail, but a dribble of thick, black blood began to run down Ridgeway’s arm and he knew he was at least hurting the thing.
Ridgeway felt immediate pain shoot down his back and drop him to his knees. The thing towring above him had one of its hands around his neck and squeezed. It had the other around Friedman’s neck and it was breaking skin, her own blood bubbling and spilling down her shirt in sheets. She screamed once more, “N—now!” in a choked and weakened wheeze.
The other ten, pale and sickly, were now fully aware of the situation. The shock and suddenness of it had worn off and the reality of it had sunk in. One of the young men threw his entire body weight into it from a run and jump and slammed into it had enough to make it reel forward and topple over, releasing its grip on Friedman and Ridgeway. Ridgeway stood up and began stomping it with his bare-footed heel. Friedman did the same. Wham, wham, wham, he put his full weight into each smash and tried to feel something underneath its thick, slimy skin snap.
The young man who body-slammed the creature kneeled beside it and began punching it as hard as he could in the bloody wound that Ridgeway had caused with his determined fingers. A young woman picked up Friedman’s wooden plank and swung it down repeatedly over where she hoped the alien’s brain would be housed.
The other eight cheered and yelled, their cackling like the braying of jackasses and their yelps like a pack of wolves surrounding a wounded deer. Two of them stood guard at the opened door and looked out for when more of the aliens would show up. One of the self-appointed sentries looked over his shoulder at the group and said, “I think it’s dead enough, guys. We gotta go. Now.”
Ridgeway looked down at their captor and saw nothing but gore. They had killed it so completely that it was unrecognizable. The cheering and yelling had died down and all that remained was a sense of disgust and ill-at-ease. He didn’t regret for one second what he did, but he was sickened by this bestial nature he never knew was present.
“You see anything?” Ridgeway asked.
“Not yet,” The self-appointed sentry said. “But I figure once we do, it’s too late.”
Ridgeway led the way out the door and the others followed, stepping around the corpse of the alien that lay on the floor of their barracks. Once they felt the warmth of sunlight hit their faces, they began to trot. Once they heard the sound of another door opening somewhere, they sprinted.