The host waited patiently while his guests eagerly arranged themselves. After some switching, twitching, and rearranging of limbs, tentacles, and other appendages, they all finally appeared to be satisfied that their view of these exotic, fascinating specimens and the activities anticipated of them would not be obstructed. Pleasure surged through the host with a mild rippling of color as he listened to some of the remarks of amazement among his guests at the variety of odd creatures on display. His pride soared when his most prized collection, that which had inspired this exhibition, elicited the highest praise.
Below, an assortment of enclosures contained an assortment of creatures, all seemingly content in familiar environments as diverse as the occupants. Of course, and all the guests readily agreed, it would be all but impossible to be sure just what contentment looked like in such strange creatures.
Some thirty-odd little bipeds huddled in the space directly beneath the host’s position. They mostly grouped themselves in twos and threes, with one larger mass numbering perhaps eight or nine individuals. Occasional loners meandered among various oddly shaped formations. A few of the creatures appeared to be sleeping, some picked at scraps of food, and others merely lounged about chittering softly.
The biped known among its peers as Collin said, “And I still maintain we’re exhibits in an extraterrestrial zoo. Nothing else fits.”
Neither Collin nor any of the others had any idea where they were, but something about the feel of the air, or the gravity, or something, made them doubt that they were still on Earth. They had no idea how they had gotten there, or why they were there, or what was going to happen to them. They were—had been—all residents of one of the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, although they didn’t know each other before arriving here. They didn’t even know how they had been taken, only that they had all been sleeping in their own homes and simply woke up here. In a few cases, husbands and wives were taken together. In other cases, only one was taken. No children were among them.
The entire expanse of their world was not much bigger than the miniscule patch of lawn between the bleachers of a football stadium, and there wasn’t even any lawn here. A material that looked and felt like plain dirt covered most of the ground. Closer examination by three men of the group who had experience in farming and a nursery business revealed it to be appearances only. The smell—or lack of it—along with the sterile feel of the stuff when rubbed between fingertips convinced them it was about as close to real dirt as the “sky” over their heads was to a dazzling, cloud-streaked sunset. From the tops of unscalable thirty-foot high stone cliffs that made up the perimeter of their world, a translucent wall ranged in color from pale ochre just above the cliffs to pale blue streaked with bands of milky white at the top where it arched up to form a dome about two hundred feet high at the center. The sandstone looking cliffs extended inward thirty or so feet from the outer edge to form irregular, blocky boulders at the edge of the large, central area that was just enough off of level to seem natural, although, it came off as about as natural as the rest of the place.
The dome roof lightened and darkened in what seemed to be close to twenty-four-hour cycles, although, for some reason, no one had succeeded in confirming that by remaining awake through an entire “night.” It was therefore only assumed that the “day” and “night” were of equal lengths because there was just no way of determining for certain, not only how long they slept each night, but even how long they lounged about each day. When they had awakened upon their arrival several months earlier, everyone’s watches were gone along with rings, bracelets, belly-button piercings, and every other kind of jewelry, plus every tooth filling, surgical staple and pin—and every bit of clothing.
They soon determined that their new world contained nothing with which to make new clothes, or anything else. They were apparently free to do anything they pleased, and to make use of whatever limited materials they could find within the confines of their world. It was just that their world contained nothing they could use, other than what appeared to be stone. And they didn’t even have any way of working with that. After a couple of weeks, they were all pretty much inured to their nudity.
Stone forms that could have been shaped by some freeform sculptor to represent couches, chairs, tables and other familiar items dotted the large, open central area. Every morning, they awoke to a variety of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables but not meat scattered about among the pieces of “furniture.” The scraps from the day before would be gone. Fresh water flowed from a half-inch hole in the cliff and filled a basin below about the size of a bathtub. A small gap in the rim allowed it to overflow into a small basin around its bottom. A half-inch drain-hole in the bottom of the basin prevented flooding. Even after someone used the basin for a bath, within half an hour the water was again sweet and fresh. It took several days of heated discussion to establish a policy of no further bathing other than what could be done by scooping up handfuls of water to wipe down their bodies.
“Well, I say we’re prisoners of war.” Edward had been a P.O.W. in Viet Nam, and he well remembered the techniques he had endured: strip everyone to dehumanize them, give the prisoners no privacy, and reduce them to living like animals. “If we believe we’re animals, we’ll become animals, and they win.”
“What war?” Evangeline asked.
“There is no war,” Collin answered.
Careful searches, although not without a few injuries from slips and falls—mostly minor scrapes and bruises—finally convinced them that no hollows nestled among the boulders that could be utilized as separate sleeping quarters or to provide even a modicum of privacy for toilet functions. Their sanitary provision was merely a large, open sand pit that was roughly the size of an average Los Angeles back yard and was located on one side of their “world.” As far as anyone could determine with no tools other than their hands, the fine sand that filled the pit was bottomless. It was firm enough to walk on, but, lacking any moisture, like the dry beach dunes high above the highest tide line, it was impossible to dig a hole deeper than a couple of feet before the sides collapsed. Any fecal matter or liquid deposited in it, buried or not, would be completely gone the following morning.
The pit had been difficult for anyone to use at first; privacy was only what the others would concede by turning away or otherwise diverting their eyes. But necessity and lack of choice soon settled the matter. When a month’s experimentation convinced them that someone would eventually have to carry to the pit anything deposited elsewhere, “doing it” in the open at the pit remained their accepted “convenience.” The deciding factor was the increasing stench that the host, captors, zookeeper or whatever powers ran the place, apparently did not find offensive. Perhaps it was assumed that the humans liked it. Oddly, their nudity seemed to make this life-style adaptation a little easier.
“There is no war,” Collin repeated. It was an old argument, but boredom encouraged rehashing old disagreements.
Edward missed his lower-leg prosthesis. But he still jumped into the discussion with his same old reasoning, “Then why do they take us away, like they do, and never bring us back. It’s for interrogation, that’s why. And they must be pretty rough, ’cause no one survives it.”
Since everyone had awakened in this strange place almost a year ago, about once a month, they would all simply lie down in the middle of the day and go to sleep, awakening sometime later to discover another one or more of their number missing. Someone had started keeping a calendar after the first week. It was nothing but a series of marks on a wall made by coating a fingertip with the dark juice of a fruit-like substance included in their diet and drawing a single stroke to record each day’s passing. It had now been five weeks since anyone had come up missing, and everyone was jumpy.
Again, Collin countered, “It is common practice among zoos to transfer specimens to other zoos. We are obviously a species very much in demand.”
“Yeah, but for what?” asked Bertrand, a little man who was greatly disadvantaged by the loss of his thick-lens eyeglasses, who frequently bumped into the stone faux furniture during the first couple of weeks, and who now navigated among them like a blind man without his cane. “What if they take us for vivisection or something?”
“No, no, no.” Collin slowly shook his head as he turned his condescending smile on his listeners. “An advanced species like the one that has obtained us, that has created this elaborate diorama to house us in, would certainly have long ago developed techniques for such research of other beings without the crude necessity of actually cutting them apart. Just consider our enforced vegetarianism. They don’t even kill lower creatures in order to feed us. No, believe me, our missing friends have not been subjected to vivisection.”
Ellen released the double-handed clutching grasp she frequently kept on her husband’s hand, and while still maintaining her hold on him with one, waved the other around as though to include the stone cliffs and whoever or whatever they concealed. “But they could still abuse the ones they take. We don’t know what kind of probing and stuff they even did to us in the beginning. Who knows what kind of values they have about personal and private bodies, or even the sanctity of life.”
“Oh, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen. I’m sure everyone’s dignity was guarded as well as the circumstances allowed, whatever occurred. And, just look at how they take care of us. We are well fed and healthy. We are free to do whatever we want—within the parameters they have established. Why, there hasn’t been even one of us get sick since we’ve been here. And injuries—what few there have been—heal so fast it’s almost scary. Carlene’s broken ankle was completely healed in a week, each day so much better than the day before, we could hardly convince her she hadn’t slept a week at a time. Even our missing tooth fillings don’t cause us pain, which clearly indicates they were replaced with something at least as efficient even if we can’t see or feel anything there. What could be more indicative of their benevolent natures?”
Mario started to make a point, “But, what—?”
“And, as I have said many times,” Collin stopped Mario with a simple wave of his hand before stressing, “I firmly believe we will eventually be given an opportunity to demonstrate our intelligence, and with that, our inappropriateness as zoological ….” And, so, the discussion went on … and on.
Teri lounged nearby, stretching out on the ground with her head propped on her hand with the elbow stuck into the dirt. Wearing nothing but her normal grin, her eyes flicked from one face to another as the debate continued. There was always the chance the arguing would lead to one side or the other becoming angry enough to throw a punch, and she didn’t want to miss it. It had happened before. Not often, and nothing resulting in more than a split lip or nosebleed, but enough to raise the possibility that it could happen again. Like everyone else, she was bored.
She was scrawny, hunch-shouldered, and had a nose like a chicken’s beak. Her eyes had been perpetually bloodshot for the first month or so, but eventually cleared along with her shaking hands and voice when her body finally realized it was getting no more alcohol or cigarettes. She still moved with herkey-jerkey little movements like a nervous bird.
From the first, the universal nudity disturbed her less than it did the others. At forty-one, she had not yet accepted the possibility of becoming unappealing to a man, even if it was only one of the regulars back home. From the time they had arrived in their present circumstances, she had often approached various male members of the group openly with a smile on her thin lips and a twinkle in her twitching eyes. But, even with the offered prize openly displayed – perhaps because of it – the men usually declined, sometimes politely.
Edward gestured with his pointing finger jabbing towards Collin, as though he had such an important point to make that he had to drive it in, and like they had never heard him make it before. “Yeah, well if we’re zoo exhibits, how come we’ve got nothing but rocks to live in? Wouldn’t you think a zookeeper in an advanced civilization would keep his animals in something like what they had back home, what do they call it – their natural habitat?”
Collin again shook his head in that condescending way of his that drove Edward and most of the others absolutely bonkers. “As I have explained it numerous times, they have given us the forms we should be comfortable with. See,” he pointed at the shapes of stone around them. “There is a couch, a table, and that barbell-looking thing could easily be a floor lamp if someone stood it upright. They – the creatures that captured us – believe they have provided us with what we are used to living among. They simply don’t understand there is more to our world than simple shapes. That’s all. They simply don’t realize, yet, that we, too, are intelligent creatures.”
Edward swept his arm as though to encompass the collection of stone shapes among them. “And, I suppose –”
Suddenly, whether standing, sitting, talking or eating, everyone simultaneously stopped, slumped to the ground and immediately fell asleep. Everyone, that is, but Leslie, Owen, and Teri. Leslie was small like Teri, and the two women together would make about one of Owen. Teri gaped at them and looked about. In the past, when she and the others had gone into the periodic, mysterious sleeps, she was always unaware of it until they all awoke to find another pair or trio gone. This was the first time she had witnessed it happening. Like her, the other two looked about, at each other, and at Teri with a combination of anxiety and curiosity in their eyes. At first Teri felt privileged, even superior, until it dawned on her why she had not gone to sleep like the others; along with Leslie and Owen, it was her turn.
Although she seemed to be fully conscious, she was unable to move her head, arms, or legs. She couldn’t even open her mouth to scream. She could move her tongue and lips, and she could exhale the air in her lungs, but she was unable to make a sound in her throat. She was standing facing the other two, so she could see her own fear rapidly rising to the level of panic reflected in Leslie’s eyes. Owen seemed to be merely confused rather than fearful. After a moment, Teri’s legs began to move wholly of their own volition, turning her to one side and begin walking. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the other two begin to move, too. They looked like she felt, like marionettes with someone, somewhere, controlling the strings.
On short, jerky steps, barely maintaining her balance but unable to stop, she walked with the others toward an unexceptional, blank area of the cliff. As they neared the rough, rocky surface, the wall shimmered, brightened, and became milky, then semi-transparent, and then it opened, the material dissolving into air. It continued to clear from the center outwards until a six-foot-high portal pierced the stone. Leslie went through first, then Owen, then Teri.
Beyond the strange doorway, Teri found herself in another open space much larger than the confining one she and diminishing dozens of other humans had inhabited for ever-long months. Although her eyes responded to commands sent by her brain, she still couldn’t turn her head. From what she could see with only the movement of her eyes, the space had few similarities to what she and the others had occupied for the past year. It was much more natural appearing with greenery interspersed with exposed rock and patches of bare soil. What looked a lot like real grass carpeted much of the ground, and several varieties of brush, although none that appeared familiar, or even all that Earthly, created islands of thicker greenery spotted about in the near distance.
What started as a brief tingling at the base of Teri’s neck spread up into her head and down her back, and finally into her arms and legs. As the tingling faded, feeling and control of her muscles returned. She turned her head to take in more of the beautiful new world she and the other two had been given.
The cliffs around the edge were dotted with dark holes that could be large enough for people to inhabit if they were caves and not just indentions. And trees! A whole grove of different kinds of trees filled a good quarter of the perimeter, plus several large groves scattered about. Why had she and the others been confined to their barren rocks and sand when this paradise was just next-door? And why move them over here only two or three at a time, with three weeks or more between movements?
Curiosity began to soften the anxiety that had exploded to near panic when she first began moving under other than her own control. Maybe she had been selected for transplanting to this lovely place because she was more deserving than the others. But, what about Leslie and Owen? Neither one was all that bright or beautiful. Maybe it had been observed that she was more open to mating – breeding – than the others. She hadn’t noticed Owen being all that receptive. He had even declined her offer twice before finally agreeing. Only a few of the other women even offered. Leslie was friendly enough to everyone, the other women, anyway. Teri had her pegged as either too shy to come on to a man, or she was a lesbian. Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily mean she couldn’t be bred. She just wouldn’t enjoy it. Maybe this Eden was reserved for copulating pairs. She thought it made more sense that already established pairs, like Ellen and her husband would be more likely to bear fruit, but their keepers might not know of or even understand their relationship. As far as she knew, they had not copulated since arriving, so they wouldn’t seem any different than any other man and woman. So, was Owen expected to mate with both her and Leslie? Well, why not? How many species were true monogamists? Probably not a lot. She didn’t even believe her own were really there at heart, especially the men. Maybe somewhere out there among the trees was another man, perhaps from another group, selected to be her mate – her Adam. She hoped he wouldn’t try to hide behind a fig leaf.
As the control of her body continued to return, she heard a heavy scraping and rustling off to the right and turned to look.
Near the center of a stand of unfamiliar trees she watched huge, scaly coils smoothly unwind, and then a sinister shaped head emerged and swayed in their direction in exquisite anticipation.
With her body totally freed, now, from the puppet master’s invisible strings, she spun and ran toward the cliffs of this suddenly perilous new Eden with its own apple-less serpent. She veered briefly toward another copse of trees, then just before indecision cost her what little lead she had, she swerved back again toward the cliffs and their better promise of safety, however dubious. Overlaying the rapid thudding of her companions’ footfalls not far behind her were unholy sounds of coarse scales scraping the ground. She was certain they grew louder with each wheezing breath she made, spurring her to greater effort, greater speed.
She heard a scream and glanced back without slowing.
Leslie sprawled on the ground, squirming to regain her feet at the same time she tried to look back at the horror closing in on her. Her feet clawed at the ground, but she was unable to get enough traction to push her panic-addled self to her feet, and the thing Teri had first thought to be a giant serpent fell upon her with writhing coils, tendrils, tentacles, and searching mouth.
Owen had stopped and started back to help Leslie back to her feet, but with the creature already lifting her in its grasp, he turned again and raced after Teri. When he joined her, he stopped, and they both gazed back at Leslie’s fate.
The thing that had her was mostly long and snake-like, with a length of at least seventy-five or eighty feet, close to five feet across in the middle and tapering to a blunted point of a tail and less so to the head. Its head was five or six feet long, three feet wide and triangular. What looked like eyes, four of them, were set on both sides of the head like eyes would be, but it had two on each side. Unlike a snake, the mouth was small and circular at the end of its snout with no sign of a jaw. The orifice widened to ten or twelve inches across and shrunk to four or five in regular pulsations, perhaps its method of breathing. Neither teeth nor anything else was visible in that dark maw. Six or seven tentacles close to fifteen feet long, each sheathed in feathery tendrils two feet long, were attached just behind the head and had been held close to the body until it was close enough to seize Leslie, then they fanned out and swarmed forward like a writhing nest of snakes. Several grabbed Leslie by her arms and legs and lifted her as she squirmed and screamed her terror in short, intense bursts.
From a hundred feet away, Teri and Owen watched the thing insert Leslie’s left leg into its mouth, feeding it in like stuffing a post into a hole in the ground. As soon as it was fully in, the orifice closed tight. Leslie’s screams lengthened and intensified with elements of unbearable agony. After ten or fifteen seconds, the leg was withdrawn, but it was only the bones. No flesh remained below the hip. The thing turned her about, inserted the other leg and feasted on it. By the time it had gone through both arms, the screams had stopped, and Leslie hung limp, either dead or unconscious and dying. Her hideous torso, its attached limbs bared to the bone, hit the ground and lay unmoving. It continued to ooze blood from the four stubs.
The beast had already moved a good ten feet toward Teri and Owen before they shook themselves out of their shock. By the time Teri turned and resumed her run toward the cliff with the holes, Owen was already several paces away and accelerating. The only thing she could think was that she had to get in front, so it would get him instead of her. With terror fueling her bony frames, she tore after him.
They had both been smokers in their prior lives, but Owen also had a pretty good beer gut. Even after all this time on their current alcohol-free and apparently nutritious diet, he still carried too much weight to win a dash for life longer than a few yards against a skeletal competitor like Teri. She passed him after eighty feet or so without so much as a word of encouragement to urge him on.
The band of trees along the base of the cliffs was no more than fifty feet wide, so she was through it by the time Owen reached it. When his screams replaced his loud pants and gasps for breath, she didn’t bother to turn to watch. She had already seen that show.
She sprinted to the cliff base, searching left and right for some way to climb up to the holes that offered the only refuge in sight. There was no obvious way up, but she spotted a place where the angle was less steep, and the surface had enough rough edges and ridges for hand-holds and foot rests. She reached it and stretched for the first outcropping, not much more than a place to wedge her finger-tips. She pulled herself up to grasp another one, then, stepping with her foot turned outward so her foot had enough beneath it for support, and she pulled herself up. Another hand-hold was within easy reach, and then another. She glimpsed upward to judge the distance to the first hole. It was only twenty feet or so above her head. She lurched upward and grabbed another hold, one with a sharp upper edge that tore her skin, but she ignored it and kept going, terror numbing her senses as it pumped adrenalin into her ropy muscles.
I’m going to make it, she shouted into her mind. I can do it! Just a little farther! Just a little higher!
And the next time she let herself look up to stoke her conviction that she would quickly be beyond the reach of the monstrosity behind her, another one looked down at her from the hole just ten feet away. The tentacles were already draping down upon her, wrapping about her arms, her legs, her waist. Her screams began when it lifted her away from the cliff face and raised her up to its lair, and to the pulsating mouth reaching to receive her left leg.
With terror freezing her mind, one thought wormed through to her consciousness. Edward was wrong; they were not prisoners of war. Collin was wrong, too. She and the other transplants from Los Angeles were neither zoo creatures nor some outer-space thing’s pets. It became clear in her swirling mind why they had been divested of all that indigestible metal, leather, and fabric. With numbing terror engulfing her mind as she watched her leg disappear into a dark hole, she screamed her rage. Like mealy worms in a tub, crickets in a cigar box, or little scurrying mice in a minimal cage just big enough to maintain them until they were needed, until they were needed, they were merely pet-food!
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