Ma’s Bar & Grill is packed to the gills tonight, strange for a Thursday night. Greg Adamson sees the crowd, hears the noise and thinks to himself, Of course it would be like this tonight. Every other night it’s dead, but tonight has to be the night where I can barely hear myself think.
Across the other side of the bar, he eyes Candice Laughlin, whom he intends to propose to this evening. The way he’d imagined it, the way he saw it in his head, it would be just the two of them to one corner of the building, with a few locals and regulars scattered throughout. He’d lean in and talk in a low voice and remind her that this is where they met three years ago, when they were both only 19. Then he’d get down on one knee, the way he’d seen in a million movies, and show her the ring he bought her. Ideally, he wouldn’t have to say a word, and with tear-filled eyes, Candice would simply say yes and they’d kiss. Maybe the others at the bar would look over casually and see this and whoop and cheer, but that was only optional.
But now, with this drunken bunch of louts gathered, Greg already begins formulating a plan B in his head. He walks through the crowd, saying “Sorry, excuse me” a dozen times over before he reaches Candice. He would have to make his move in the midst of the madness that is Ma’s tonight.
“Hey!” She shouts and wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him on the cheek.
“I didn’t know it was going to be this packed tonight,” He says.
“I know! It’s weird, right?”
Greg looks across the bar and the sea of people he will have to wade through in order to get there and asks, “What do you want to drink?”
“Uh… something with — no, wait! Get me a flavored vodka with soda water.”
Greg waits at the bar, sandwiched between two men he’s never met before. They seem unaware of his presence and shift and bump into him every half minute or so. What really chaps his ass, he thinks, isn’t so much the rudeness from the people packed in here tonight, it’s that he’s never seen any of these people before. Who are they and where the hell did they come from? Ma’s is in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. It gets to be packed on the weekends with locals, but every other day it’s essentially a ghost town. Sometimes when it gets like this, with travelers all congregated, there’s an event going on in the desert cities down the way, and this is the first watering hole for miles, where everyone comes to wet their whistle before heading out again.
Mostly what bothers him, he figures, is that he just wanted it to be their own place tonight so she could hear him clearly when he decides to ask her the biggest question he’s ever asked anybody.
Ma’s is Greg and Candice’s favorite place to get a drink in town. It’s clean enough to not be mistaken for a dive bar, but dirty enough to feel at home. The bar area smells like beer and burgers and the bathrooms smell like bleach and piss. And no matter what time of day it is, it always looks the same, with the windows blackened out to keep out any natural light. It’s one of the last places in town to have novelty sex items for sale in the restrooms: For fifty cents you can get a studded condom that will almost certainly break if actually used for sex. During the day, when it’s considered family friendly, the adult vending machines are covered.
One of the gentlemen on either side of Greg bumps him once more after he gets his drinks, which spill down his shirt sleeve, at the wrist, where it will hang damp for hours, occasionally touching his flesh and reminding him of the spill. He mutters “fuck” inaudibly, takes a deep breath and approaches Candice with the drinks. She takes hers and sips at it delicately through the skinny drink straw.
For a long time he says nothing, then finally, “Do you remember how we met?”
“What?” She cups her hand over her ear to hear better. Someone has decided to not only put the jukebox at its full volume, but play the worst, most pining form of country music.
“Do you — uh, do you remember…? You know what? Fuck it. Do you want to get out of here? Let’s finish our drinks and get the hell out of here.”
Outside is warm but the wind has a chilling bite to it. The sign atop Ma’s lights up the desert surrounding it, moths fluttering in its hypnotic glare, but it’s still dark enough to see all the stars above. In the country, all the constellations are visible. Sometimes you can see satellites go by, or meteors burn up in the atmosphere.
Greg says, “I want to show you somewhere,” and they get in his truck. They drive about five miles down the main stretch of highway that cuts the down in half, then go left down a dirt road for another ten miles. Where they stop, beneath them are the lights of the desert cities, glowing and blinking, each grid its own work of art. On the ridge before the drop into the canyon are a few scattered cacti and yucca plants.
Candice squeezes his arm and leans into him, head on his shoulder and closes her eyes.
Backward from ten, Greg counts down in his head, and when he reaches zero, he intends to pop the question. He only makes it to seven before he figures, fuck it, and just does it.
“What would you think if I asked you to marry me?”
Candice says nothing. She sits up, turns her back toward the door and faces him head on. Her face is an enigma. Her brow is furrowed, so Greg is unsure what her answer will be.
“Do you know how weird this is right now?” She asks. “When I closed my eyes just now, I swear to God I thought about how perfect it would have been if you’d asked me to marry you.”
“Does that mean yes?”
“Of course it means yes!” And she sobs once, then twice, and then embraces him while she cries over his shoulder, raining tears and spit into his shirt’s back.
He drives her back to his place and they celebrate by sharing a couple long-neck beers and they make love. She lays next to him and they talk for hours about what this means for them now. What will life be like now? Will she move in with him? He with her? Will they just get a new place altogether? Will they stay in town or move somewhere else? So many questions, but they will have to be addressed later. It’s getting late.
Sometime during the late hours of night, Greg awakes and hears Candice walking softly and creeping about his bedroom. She has her clothes on already and is tying her shoes.
“Where are you going?” He asks her.
“I have to get back home.” She says.
“That’s crazy! It’s late as hell, just spend the night.”
She sighs. She goes a little slack, then tenses up again. She looks right into his eye and her face is very solemn and serious.
“Please know that I love you,” She says. “And I’m going to marry you. Nothing has changed my mind. But… I need to digest all this. I want to be alone for a little bit. Is that okay?”
He says, “That’s fine, sure,” but he can’t help but feel scared. He says, “Let me give you a ride home at least.”
“Don’t bother, it’s only a mile away, I’ll be fine.”
Candice clomps down the hallway and Greg hears the door open, then shut softly, while the screen door slams and smacks against the frame. She heads down his dirt driveway, and he watches her go from his bedroom window. She looks back and holds up her hand and curls her fingers as a wave of goodbye. He kisses his fingers and holds them to the glass. She smiles. Then she turns and walks away from him.
Sadness washes over him, but it’s not sadness that he’s worried that they won’t be married; it’s that he’s without her now, alone, and he misses her even though it’s only been a minute. He groans the groan of a man anguished by confusion and unrest and closes his eyes with the crook of his elbow over them and tries to sleep. He spends over an hour replaying the events of the day back in his head, from calling Candice and asking her to meet at the bar, to proposing, to making love, to her leaving. He runs the events back again, five times over, before he finally falls back asleep.
Greg is asleep for almost half an hour, in that in-between stage where he’s awake enough to hear himself snoring, before he is shocked up and bolted upright in bed by a blinding light flooding in through his bedroom windows. The light appears suddenly and is so bright that everything in his room is white. The light has no one, single source. It appears to be coming from everywhere. There are no shadows cast from any objects. It’s like everything has been painted with light and every object is glowing on its own. The pain caused by looking at this is immense, and Greg wants to put his hands over his eyes, but he finds himself unable to move. He’s completely paralyzed. He wonders if he can at least scream, and tries, but all that comes out is a choked gurgle.
A different colored light glows from the base of his bedroom door. An orange hue flickers beneath, growing in intensity from the middle of it, ebbing out in manic pulses. Two blobs of shadows stand somewhere in the middle of the glow, and he immediately recognizes those blobs as feet. Someone is standing in front of his door. The knob begins to jiggle, and the door itself begins to shake against the frame. One thing Greg can do is close his eyes. He closes his eyes and prays for God to save him. He prays in his mind, unable to move his lips, but lets out a strained, low-decibel cry as he begs his Lord to save him.
Greg has only prayed in his most desperate moments, and this is the most desperate and afraid he’s ever felt in his life.
With his eyes still closed, he can hear the door open slowly, ending with the knob knocking against the wall, dunk-dunk–dunk. Footsteps creek closer and closer toward him. Whoever is approaching him is heavy enough to rattle the room around him, and have the floor groan in agony with each step.
When Greg was a kid he felt something similar, a sort of waking dream he couldn’t snap out of. Somehow, though, he knew this wasn’t the same thing. As real as that moment had felt when he was a child, this was unmistakably, terrifyingly real.
Finally, Greg does open his eyes and what he sees isn’t a man at all. What he sees is the most awful thing he’s ever seen in his life. His paralysis is broken long enough that he can let out a deep, bellowing scream, a scream so long, loud and sustained that he can taste blood in his mouth as consciousness fades from his vision and he feels his body collapse.
After what feels like an eternity, Greg’s eyes flutter open and what he sees is only an orange-reddish smear of vision. He squeezes his eyelids tightly, feeling gunk between them that he tries to blink away to no avail. He then tries to sit up, but finds that he can’t — not paralyzed like he was in his bed at home, but literally stuck to a flat surface coated with a sticky substance that has glued him down to his back. He had been stripped naked and slapped onto a giant, human-sized glue trap similar to ones used for mice.
He wiggles his toes, his fingers, shifts his head from side to side. He says “Hello” aloud. Everything appears to be where it should be, and he’s alive, but stuck. He begins to scream now, louder and louder, for help, please. Someone, anybody please help! He knows no one will help him, but he can’t help it. His mind says not to scream, but his body won’t follow its orders.
His eyes still shut, he can sense something (one of those things that he saw) close by him. He can feel its presence; he can smell its horrible stink and ever-so-slightly hear its breathing. It smells like the stuff that comes out of a clogged sink when you finally snake it.
It barks something that sounds like a command at him, loud enough to make his eyes shut even harder, forcing tears between the slits. He knows from the pitch of it that it wants him to keep quiet, so he does.
Sounding like wet fish hitting the pavement, Greg hears what he thinks is one of those things walking away, then stopping somewhere close enough by that it can monitor him.
Without vision and without movement, it’s impossible to tell how much time has gone by. While it’s probably only been hours, it feels like literal days. Greg’s vision is beginning to come back now. What was once only an orange-reddish smear, is now clearly a chamber and a series of rooms. The floors and the ceilings are red, the walls a different shade of the same color, outlined and supported with metallic squares. Everything also looks wet, and he can hear a distinct dripping sound.
Standing in between two of these chambers is one of (if not the) creatures that took him from his home. Its height is somewhere between 12 and 15 feet high, with a stocky build. Although it has two legs, it looks more like an insect or a reptile than a human. Its torso, or possibly thorax, depending on how one wants to look at it, has three arms on either side. Though the arms themselves are stubby and short, the hands have curved claws that look like they’re made out of bone and could easily slash through flesh like butter.
But the creature’s face. Oh, god, its face. It has a set of eyes on either side of its head and another set in the middle of its face, presumably to maximize its range of visibility, to have the eyes of both a predator and the prey. Its mouth, though shut, has a row of teeth hanging from its jaws and well below its bottom lip. A string of saliva flows from the mouth and collects into a puddle on the floor between its feet, and Greg wonders if maybe that was the dripping sound he heard earlier.
Though the chambers go on to an uncountably high number, Greg can clearly see inside at least three of them due to the angle, with his head tilted chin toward chest as high as it could go. Inside each room is another person, much like himself, glued to the table. No one else, however, is moving. They’re either dead, or resigned to whatever fate awaits them.
Greg lays his head back down, reacquainting it more fully with the sappy, sticky mess on the ground, and feels it squish around his hair and re-adhere to it. Hopeless, awful thoughts can’t help but flash in his mind with vivid imagery. He sees himself staying glued to the floor for forever until he eventually starves to death. He sees himself being released from the gooey prison, led to another room like an animal to the slaughter and killed, along with everyone else in the row of infinite chambers.
He begins to wonder about whatever structure is housing the chambers. He knows immediately what has happened: That all those silly late-at-night television shows with the hillbillies talking about bein’ captchered by some awful aliens were true. Life existed outside of our planet and these creatures, these aliens from beyond the stars, did indeed come to Earth for the purpose of abducting human being in order to perform experiments on.
Greg had never had a panic attack before, so when it comes, choking at his throat and his heart, clawing at his mind with relentlessness, he believes that he’s actually dying. He twists and turns, arching his still-stuck-to-the-floor back and emits a sound of pure agony and horror that he never thought possible. He breathes in and out rapidly, the way an overheated dog might pant. Something blocks the light overhead, casting a shadow over him. He looks up and one of the creatures peers down on him and touches a device to his chest that emits a high-voltage shock. Suddenly, the panic attack is gone, now replaced by one of the worst pains he’s ever felt in his life, dull and throbbing, but deep down inside him. He keeps quiet, biting the inside of his lips to keep from making that sound again.
Okay, he thinks. Okay, just keep quiet. Maybe they don’t want me dead. If they did, I’d be dead by now. If I just shut the fuck up I might just make it home to see—
Candice. Oh, god. He had to make it back. For her. If his body was crippled by punishment and his mind twisted by psychological torture, he could still crawl back through time and outer space to be with her again. To feel her touch on his skin. To breathe the same air as her. To feel the way she rested her hand on his face when they were asleep, facing each other. If anything could keep him alive, it was the possibility of living another day to see her.
He thinks back to just how recently it had been since he was with her, and something close to hopelessness wells up inside of him.
When they had first met, he thought she hated him. But he later found out if that if she hates somebody, she just ignores them completely. Nobody challenged him the way she did, and he knew that she was the girl for him. Being with her, there was never an easy way out. Loving her, he feels, is the best thing that ever happened to him.
And so now he quiets down, for her. He controls his breathing, thinking about each intake and outtake. Each breath in. Each breath out. Repeat. One, and two; one, and two. Again and again. His heartrate begins to match his breathing. Slow and steady. He allows his eyes to close on their own and a feeling that’s not quite, but close to, euphoria follows.
Just as a moment of quiet peace and acceptance is reached, the entire ship begins to shake, like a building about to be split in half by an earthquake. Greg tries to touch his chest with his chin again in order to see around better, and sees that the alien (it still feels absurd to call them that; aliens!) is now gone, perhaps somewhere else in the event of an emergency procedure. The other people in the room lay still, heads placed flatly on the ground.
“Does anyone know what’s happening?” Greg shouts to no one in particular, just the people he can see.
No one answers. He fears he’s the only one alive.
Greg desperately asks again. “Please! Does anyone know—”
Someone unseen fires back, “Shut the hell up, you idiot! You’ll get us all killed!”
He does. He goes back to staring at the lights above and allows the ship to rock and shake and rattle and roll. He breathes in and out again, matching his heart to his lungs. He fights back and loses against queasiness creeping up his throat and hot, acidy vomit flows from his mouth on either side. He gags against the flow and spits the remaining bile out to the side.
Suddenly, it stops. The shaking, the hell-fueled horror ride, all over. Minutes pass before something finally happens again. The glue that binds them to the floor is released. Greg can feel the stickiness subside and free his body. His arms can lift. His head, too. He sits up and then stands, feeling a bit silly for still having the sense of modesty that causes him to cup his hands over his genitals, but feels a little less silly when he sees that everyone else is doing the same.
Before he can see them he smells them, and a dozen of the creatures holding the men and women captive march out, screaming wordless commands and shoving the people into a single file line to march forward, past the endless chambers. Now able to look up, Greg can see it’s not just a single floor of chambers, but dozens stacked on top of each other. There are literally thousands of people that he can see now, being marched.
Greg wants to ask someone if they know where they’re all going, but he knows the obvious answer is no, no one does. He remains quiet, even as he looks up above to one of above floors of chambers and sees a woman break from her own single file line, shriek in absolute, realized horror, and leaps down. On her way down, her head smacks against one of the metal frames lining the walls and floor of a chamber and caves her skull in. She lays motionless and no one looks down or offers their help, lest they be shocked to the chest again, or possibly killed just like her.
Up ahead, Greg sees where they are all marching toward. It’s light. Actual sunlight, blinding and harsh, somehow horrifying and beautiful all at once. Wherever they are now that has sunlight is a long way from home, and he begins to fear that he’ll never see “home”, that vague but wonderful idea of a place of belonging, again.
“Outside,” the area with the sunlight, is like an outdoor swap meet, with booths manned by more than a hundred of the creatures that captured the men and women being corralled like cattle. Shade cloth stretched between poles hung up high provides some relief from the heat of the outside world.
Greg knows he is on another planet and that the sunlight he is seeing is real, not some sort of simulation within another, larger ship. Wherever he is now is the final, intended destination for the passengers. Greg also knows that no planet with breathable air is anywhere near where scientists can see with telescopes. The air he breathes in now is thin, hot, and not quite ideal, but he can live. The trip itself didn’t take very long, either, unless he had been asleep on that sticky floor in a state of suspended animation for years and never had any idea — so, how far away he is now exactly from Earth is likely never going to be answered.
He wonders, though, if he should ever give up the hope of ever making it home, and decides to cling to the idea nonetheless, no matter how absurd the hope might be, because the thought of being home, in any condition, to live to see Candice one more time, gives him the strength to continue marching.
The hope continues on, even as one of the large aliens overseeing the line plunges its electrically charged stick into his leg and drops him to the ground. He winces and struggles with the pain, but while in a dazed shock from the suddenness of the injury, a creature grabs him and another one shaves the hair off of his head. Bald, naked and in searing pain, his final indignity is to be rubbed from head to toe with a semi-translucent gel that burns ever so slightly, like a hand sanitizer. He might be mistaken, but to him this seems like a hurried delousing process, making sure any germs or mites from Earth don’t make their way to this planet, where they might mutate and harm any beings not immunized against them.
Pulled from the line, he is grouped and tethered to five others from the ship. They are all approximately the same age, but of different heights, sexes and races. They are all uniformly shaved bald and slathered with the sterilizing gel that is quickly evaporating from their skin. Everyone at this point knows better than to ask any questions; no one would know the answer and they run the risk of being shocked or beaten again.
The six tethered together are led to one of the booths and put into a cage. A creature manning the booth with the cage clicks communicatively with the one who brought him his “cattle” or whatever they may be considered. They click back and forth until the alien from the ship is dismissed, and the booth owner sticks his face into the cage and snarls and groans deep within its throat.
Legs tired, body aching, Greg wonders if he can sit, so he does. No response from the creature, so he assumes it must be okay. The others follow his lead and sit on the ground with their legs crisscrossed.
Hours pass with the heat of the sun beating down on them. Periodically water is brought to them in a long receptacle that they all share from. The water is warm and unrefreshing, but needed. Without hydration, they would surely die. They put their lips to it and drink straight from it as if their mouths were straws.
A group of the lizard-insect creatures with the hideous eyes — two larger ones with younger, smaller ones — stop by the cage and initiate the same sort of clicking-groaning communicative language as before.
The smaller ones, presumably their children, rush the cage and stick their small, clawed arms through, reaching for the human inhabitants inside. Greg slides back quickly, his heart pounding in terror. The creature manning the booth leads the smaller ones away, making a soothing cooing sound, like a cricket’s vibration.
Objects are passed back and forth between the “parents” and the booth’s owner, and the door to the cage is opened. The booth’s owner slides in low so that it can fit through the door’s frame and uses all of its arms to subdue Greg. Greg screams. He looks back at the others who are now huddled back into the corner of the cage, recoiling in horror. He screams for their help, but they can’t do anything about it. They watch with sad eyes as he is pulled out of the cage. Greg snags the doorframe and holds on for dear life, but with an ugly popping sound, his fingers snap from it wetly and he is lead away.
Greg is thrust into a smaller cage and dragged through the outdoor marketplace. The children tap about at the cage, testing the strength of the material that houses him by picking at it. They make aggressive sounds at him and twist their heads at him curiously.
The small cage he is in is hoisted up by the two larger creatures and thrown into a large ground vehicle that hovers off the ground by about three feet.
I guess this is their equivalent of a family SUV? He wonders with a strange smile.
The house (or, more appropriately “dwelling”) that the family of creatures live in looks like something from a Dadaist’s nightmare. Discordant, semi-non-Euclidian architecture forms the foundations on which this seemingly impossible-to-exist structure is founded.
The drive, at least, from the alien swap meet to the alien home was a quick one. The fact that he was purchased and brought to a home on an alien world in a relatively quick amount of time, at least, makes him feel relieved; and then the feeling of relief makes him feel ill. What was the upside to all of this? That at least now he can possibly sleep?
Even if he is being raised for food, it seems unlikely that he would be killed today. No one purchases a live chicken expecting to kill it for dinner that night… but Greg realizes he is thinking in human terms. These things kidnapped him, brought him at the very least light years away from home and sold him to a family of buglike reptiles. Nothing is out of the question anymore. Logic, as he knows it, has been violently defenestrated.
Greg is brought inside the home still in his cage, the door then unlatched and allowed to swing open freely. Inside the home, it looks like it had been erected thousands of years ago. Everything appears to be a part of its environment; nothing looks like it had been brought from somewhere else, like anything should exist anywhere outside of its place. For a technologically-advanced species, they seem to live in a sort of harmony with their own planet’s nature.
He is placed in another room away from the family in its own little corner of the house. He has his own room. For the time being, he has a room to himself and is completely alone, which is at once a relief and utterly terrifying.
Slowly, cautiously, he steps from the mouth of his cage and into his room and is in immediate awe of how different everything is. These creatures don’t seem to have a need for furniture, so there are no chairs, no beds, nothing like that. There is, however, what looks to be like artwork hung up on the walls. There are deliberate pieces of decoration. So, as vastly different as they are biologically and culturally, there are at least some similarities. Enough similarities that the creatures’ behavior might, in some way, resemble human behavior. And if their behavior is similar enough to a human’s he might be able to manipulate a situation to his benefit. If their behavior is close enough to a human’s, that is.
The room is kept dark. He wonders if it’s kept dark for his benefit so that he can squeeze in some badly needed sleep, or if every room in the house is kept the same way. Either way, it’s appreciated.
As he puts his head down on a hard, bumpy floor and closes his eyes to sleep, he can hear the muffled chatter of the family of creatures. He can distinctly hear the little ones approach close to his door and then commanded away from it. The little ones are curious, which makes him feel hopeful. The children aren’t necessarily aggressive with him, but they want to get near him, study him. If given an opportunity, maybe he could work out a method communication with them, to explain to them that he would like to go home, that he has a soon- to-be wife at home who probably misses him very much.
How many other people might have tried the same thing, though? He saw literally thousands of people going through the same process that he did. Were any of them ever successful? Maybe. Stories of people being abducted and returned were the norm. There might still be a chance of getting back home.
These thoughts shoot through his brain at an alarming speed and it’s surprising that he gets any sleep at all. When he finally stirs awake, he’s the hungriest he can remember being in years. He staggers about the room, hands clutching his stomach, his head swimming with dizziness. He’s unsure if he should alert his new housemates by yelling for them or if he should just wait.
In the corner of the room is a pair of receptacles not unlike the one he and his cage-mates drank from earlier. One is filled to the brim with crystal-clear water and the other with a putrid-looking brown mash. He drops to his knees, cups his hands and drinks from the water. It is refreshing and cool. He can feel the liquid cool his body as it goes down his throat. He splashes it over his face and rubs it over his chapped lips.
The brown mash, he is less sure of. He bends to it and sniffs and it smells like nothing. If it were possible, it would smell like the absence of something. He pokes a finger into it and brings the finger to his mouth to taste. Inoffensive. He uses his hands to eat and it does the job. He wonders how long it had been since he last ate, impossible to tell how long he’d been on the ship for. Either a very short amount of time that felt like an eternity, or an eternity that felt like a very short amount of time by comparison.
After some time, the door — more like an organic-looking opening, not unlike a simulation of a mouth — opens and the children of the creatures approach gingerly. The parents are not far behind, watching over everything that happens. Greg is afraid, but he is even more afraid of alerting them that he’s afraid. Animals that are afraid are prone to sudden, unexpected violence. He doesn’t want to give them the impression that he’s going to hurt them if it means that they’ll hurt him, or worse. He stands cautiously and allows the children to come up to him.
They run the soft parts of their hands over his body, along his chin, over his bald head where hair used to be. The smallest one accidentally nicks a small piece of his flesh with its claws. He winces and recoils and it recoils in reaction. He realizes it was only an accident and relaxes and the petting continues.
One of the children scampers out of the room and returns only moments later with a square piece of something. It brings the square up to his face and he smells it. It doesn’t smell like anything, but he takes a small bite out of the corner of it and it is the most amazing flavor he’s ever experienced in his short life. Every grilled-to-perfection steak looks like flavorless gruel in comparison. Simply, it is the most delicious thing he’s ever eaten. Ever.
Greg is embarrassed it took him this long to come to the conclusion, but wasn’t brought here as a science experiment, source of food or sacrificial lamb. They have no intention of cutting him open, studying his organs or killing him or bringing any immediate harm to him. They huddle around staring at him, watching him eat. If he moves a certain way, their heads tilt to see him better. They think he’s cute.
I’m their goddamned pet, he realizes. I’m the family fucking dog!
The realization brings both horror and relief. Relief that he isn’t going to be murdered. Horror that his life is spared so that he can suffer the indignity of existing solely to bring a sense of pleasure to a species of space-traveling aliens.
He accepts his fate with quiet shame and allows the “family” to pet him, inspect him, making those familiar cooing noises at him, and to feed him, keep him stocked with water and to… for lack of a better word, to love him, as any family would love a cat or a dog.
This goes on for months.
For months, he is mostly left alone, given his own room and quarters. For months, he spends his time in the morning and at night doing pushups and sit-ups. For months, he studies their daily routine and keeps a mental journal of their comings and goings.
They seem to spend most of their time at home, probably without jobs (an advanced society capable of space travel may have evolved past that point), but every other day they head out together and leave him home alone. The days on this planet seem to last longer than an average day on Earth ever did. One of their days feels like about one and a half of ours. With the time alone, he explores, pokes his nose into curiosities he’s unfamiliar with, but can never make sense of anything. Snooping and exploring is mostly boring, as everything they own is already clearly on display, but he enjoys testing the strength of the openings. So far, impenetrable. He has no means of escape as of yet, but even prisoners can worm their way out of an air duct with enough time and patience.
Sometimes at night, if he’s not put in his own quarters for the rest of the evening, he will curl up to the larger creature. It appears to enjoy the attention. He wants to build his trust with it. If ever he acts suspiciously around a door or exit, he doesn’t want to give off the impression that he wants to escape. He wants them to believe that he’s happy here and it just being naturally curious is all.
The odd thing is, he actually is happy here to some degree. He never has to worry about his next meal since he essentially lives off the same nutritious, bland mash, punctuated by the occasional too-delicious-to-accurately-describe square treats. In fact, because of his diet and exercise he’s never been in better shape. Between the twice daily workouts and the low calorie food, he feels confident that in an escape situation, he could be able to evade capture on foot for some time without his strength going out on him. Just to be sure, he plans to take a portion of his food with him in case he’s on the run for several days and requires nourishment. He saves up those delicious cubes by debasing himself — they seem to love it when he sings or dances for them. Many times he’ll simply be and they’ll find his very existence cute enough to necessitate giving him a treat that he can squirrel away for later.
Another element that leads to his feelings of total complacency is that he has no actual responsibilities. He has a goal, but no set timeline to accomplish it. He never has to worry about a failure of the mundane. He doesn’t have to worry about clocking in to a job that he hates, gritting his teeth, and still somehow getting fired from it even if he gave it his all. All he has is one goal and it isn’t enforced by anyone but himself.
His goal is to escape from this house, or whatever a house is called here, and find his way back to the swap meet and sneak aboard one of the ships that brings a fresh shipment of humans for eager buyers. He may have to stow away for quite a long time, but maybe in time one of the same ships would return back to Earth and he could sneak off.
This is only a very tentative Plan A. Plan A has many variables including somehow stealing one of those “shock sticks” and making demands by pointing upward toward the sky. The communication plan he tried with his owners had failed; they have no interest in thinking of their precious little pet as being something with cognitive abilities.
The way he figures it, in a worst case scenario, they bring him back here and he gains their trust again and escapes again. If they kill him, at least he died trying.
Nights pass by into weeks, weeks into months and months into a solid year before he feels ready for his first attempt at escape.
Greg is unsure if he’ll actually go through with it in the moments before it finally happens. His heart pounds so hard he can feel it in his throat and tries to dryly swallow it away. The front entrance the home opens sideways with a sickening sound like it always does. This time, Greg approaches the opening as they exit. He tries to act merely inquisitive of the outside world, not like someone who has their mind set on making a run for it.
As a precaution, one of the children blocks his way from the entrance. Somehow it knows that being that close to sunlight and real, actual outside, is irresistible, and anyone, no matter how content they are, will try to get out into it.
He sidesteps back and forth, keeping his eyes on both the child blocking his way, and the rest of the family exiting. He times it so that the rest of the family has already stepped outside and cleared a path for him before he grabs the child. Now capable of 100 pushups in just a single set during one of his workouts, he’s just barely strong enough to grab the child by one of its arms and yank it as hard as he can to send it reeling backward without having it retaliate with one of its claws. He’s clearly not strong enough to win in a fight one on one, but he can certainly surprise the hell out of it, and he does.
Seeing its surprise and face contorted into a frown of hurt makes Greg feel guilty. Yes, he’s a prisoner in this home. Yes, he was taken from his own home in the night. But he can’t help it. For an entire year of his life they fed him and slathered him with affection. An emotional connection in that amount of time is bound to be forged, no matter the circumstances of how he got there.
He forgets his guilt and sees the outside world laid out before him for the taking. Everything moving in half-speed, he sees the resulting action with clarity: He sees the child creature cry out and the rest of the family look back to it. They see what has happened and move to pounce on Greg, but he sprints at full speed between the family and the frame of the house, huffing and puffing his way down.
His feet have been inside for a long time, so the ground outside digs into the soft flesh and it hurts like hell, but his heart is pumping adrenaline so heavily that the pain is something he can worry about later, when he’s finally found time to rest and to lick his wounds. For now, he’s a man on a mission.
For just a moment, he looks back over his shoulder and sees the family piling into their large ground vehicle to give chase. He knows he can’t outrun it by a longshot, but he can go where it can’t.
Up ahead is a sheer climb with no other paths leading to it. Large boulders, higher than the clearance that the vehicle hovers at, block any other way up but by foot. Greg digs his feet and hands into the side of it and begins scaling it the way he used to scale rocks when he was a kid. The only difference now was that he was in fear for his life, not just having a good time.
He pops up to the top of it in only a matter of seconds, and looks down once more.
He sees the vehicle approaching with no way up. But beyond that he sees, for the first time, the planet that he’s on. The first descriptor that comes to his mind is “alien” but that seems a bit obvious, even if it’s the perfect word for what he’s seeing. Everything below looks bizarre. The sky is a different color: Purple, with a blueish hue. The collection of homes below is less a neighborhood and more of a series of carved-in caves with mouthlike doors leading toward their interior. And the plant life is truly bizarre. Some of the trees are moving by their own volition.
Think about it later, he decides and takes off again.
Running was never his strong suit. He did as much cardio in his room as possible through shadow boxing and jumping jacks, but nothing can prepare you for a full-on sprint like a full-on sprint. In only a matter of minutes he reduces his speed entirely and coughs up a glob of mucus and must proceed by walking. He keeps his hands on top of his head, his elbows cocked to the side, to aid in his breathing. The atmosphere here is much different — hotter, thinner — and makes breathing difficult. It feels like the spit in his mouth is boiling.
He darts in between the shade of trees, keeping a brisk pace, but trying to keep from running again. He keeps his visibility low, clinging to the ground and crawling through tall areas of grass. At this point, he feels safe enough to assume he’s lost the family pursuing him, but much less sure about ever finding the swap meet again, or one of the ships headed Earthbound for that matter.
A terrible thought enters his mind: What if those ships also went to planets other than Earth? What if he made his way to another world entirely?
Shut it out, don’t think about it. Anything is possible, just keep moving. Don’t dwell on what could go wrong, just think about what has gone right.
He rests beneath the shade of a tree for half an hour and is glad he had the foresight to bring food with him because he can hear a strained gurgle come from his stomach. He takes a few sensible bites to tide himself over. Eating it has been a chore for the better part of a year because it always tastes the same. What he wouldn’t give for one slice of pepperoni pizza dripping with grease. Even those indescribably delicious squares had lost their charm after a time.
A gentle wind blows against his sweaty neck and for a moment, just a fleeting moment, he feels like he’s home again. The wind even smells vaguely familiar.
Somewhere behind him, he hears a whirring sound, something mechanical. Before he can fully register what he’s hearing, one of the hovering vehicles pulls in front of him. It isn’t the family looking for him. This looks like an official vehicle. He knows his pursuit is over now.
It was a good run, He assures himself. A short run, but a good run.
The vehicle opens and one of the creatures, in its all-too-familiar glory, steps from it. Greg puts his hands up to show he means no harm, hoping “hands up” means the same thing universally, and that he is understood by the creature. The creature seems to understand and gently loops a rope made of a leathery, metallic material over his neck and leads him to the vehicle. Greg climbs inside the vehicle and it slides shut again.
When Greg finally arrives at his destination he hopes there’s been a mistake. He’s brought to a building carved into the side of a hill. In the middle is a large courtyard so that he can look up from below and see that there are two levels. Both levels are quarantined by a large gate and inside those gates are altogether about a hundred people. He can see men, women and children. Some of them are clothed but most of them are as naked as he is.
“Wait, wait, wait,” He tries to reason with the beast. “There’s been a mistake. If you just bring me back to my house, I’ll stay put—”
The beast kicks him in the back and the pain forces him to his knees. Some of the people who see this whoop and holler at him, and Greg sees that most of them are half mad. He’s put into the bottom-floor cage with these people and he screams, “You can’t leave me in here with them! Please, somebody help me! There’s been a mistake!”
“Oh! There’s been a mistake!” Someone behind him taunts.
“Someone doesn’t bewong hewe?” Another person mimics.
Greg turns around and looks at the people he’s imprisoned with. One of them is so filthy that his hair has matted together, like his hair is now one giant dreadlock with strings dangling from it. And the smell. God, the smell. They’re standing where they piss and shit, no luxury of a bathroom or anything else, and no one has the decency to go in a corner. He can see drains on the ground where they must spray it down once a day (hopefully it’s that frequent).
A woman approaches him. The hair on her head looks cleaner than most everyone else’s around here, but it hangs in front of her face in stringy clumps. She looks about thirty years old and her right hand only has two fingers. He wonders if that’s because of something that happened back on Earth or if it happened here.
“Don’t listen to them,” She says. “They’ve been driven fucking crazy since being here, but who hasn’t?”
“What the fuck’d you just say about me, bitch?” Someone behind her growls.
She ignores whoever is looking for confrontation and continues to Greg, “Most of us got rounded up trying to escape. Some of these people, I’ve found out, are totally feral. Born from escapees and wandered until they got captured, too. Half of these people can’t even talk, they’re so crazy.”
“Jesus,” Greg can feel his heart pounding now. “What do they do with us here? Why are we here? What are they going to do with us?”
“What do you think?”
The realization makes Greg physically ill when it comes to him. On the bottom floor on the wall furthest away from him is a door leading to a separate room. He squints and crouches and leans in to see it better, to no avail, but he doesn’t have to see inside to know what it is. It’s a killing room. Just like homeless cats and dogs back home, each and every person in this room is going to be marched into it and incinerated.
Tears well up in his eyes and spill down his cheeks like hot rain. He wipes his wrist over the wetness, then cups his hands over his face and cries. He lets out a raspy sob that devolves into hopeless keening. He feels the woman’s two-fingered hand on his shoulder, then she envelops him and hugs him with her naked body and allows him to cry. She says kind, comforting words into his hear that actually do make him feel better. She tells him that it’s okay. She never says that it’s going to be fine, because it isn’t.
She says, “I got this theory. We all want to be home, right, we all have someone we miss. I’m sure you do. We all do. We’re never going to see them again in this lifetime, but that’s okay. I don’t believe in reincarnation in a spiritual way, but I believe all of us are going to live again one day. What we are is nothing but atoms and molecules put together in the right combination of ways that somehow has the right chemistry and the right electricity to give us consciousness, to make us alive. And matter can never be destroyed. It just turns into something else. If the universe is infinite, and a lot of people think it is, eventually that matter will make its way back together again somehow and I’ll be alive again. It could take a billion-billion years. But if infinity is what I think it is, a billion-billion is just a drop in the bucket. In time, after you’ve been alive again enough times, you’ll be reunited with the person you miss and love the most.”
A genuine smile spreads across Greg’s face and he looks in the woman’s eyes and his heart feels warmer. He hopes she’s right about being able to see Candice again one day, even if it takes until the end of time a million times over.