~ The Cage ~
Steven didn’t want to wake up; sometimes you know things aren’t going to be good when you open your eyes.
On the other hand, better to see the trouble coming than get hit by it. He shook his eyes into focus and looked around, then shook his head again and squinted.
The sky was the color of an old bruise — solid cloud-cover in dusty grays and purples from one end of the sky to the other — but that wasn’t really the problem; in fifty years you can see some pretty odd weather kick up.
The problem was, he was looking at the battered sky through the bars of a wooden cage. Worse, the cage was in the middle of some kind of camp. There was a fire burning a few feet away, cooking something that smelled like rotten corn silage in a pot almost as big as the cage he was in, and there were about a dozen little huts around him that looked like they were made out of sod.
The people walking around, including the two looking at him in the cage, were short little wiry bastards with dried mud caked all over their skin.
And they didn’t look like right at all.
He tried to get loose when they opened the cage doors, but they were strong and there were a lot of them. They pulled him to a stunted, leafless tree that stood in the middle of the camp, and tied him too it. The rope they used was never intended for this purpose; over an inch thick with harsh bristles jutting from the weave like thorns, it chafed his skin even when he didn’t move. They wrapped him in a coil from shoulders to knees, leaving him with his back pressed to the surface of the dead tree. The knots required by the thickness of the rope were twice the size of his fist.
Two of the… things, walked up to him after he was secured. Their noses were about three inches too long, same as the chins, and what skin he could see where mud had flaked away was the same color as the sky. Their eyes were the black of used forty-weight oil.
Not human. Sean would know what to call them, probably; he sure as hell didn’t. He’d hoped he was dreaming, but he knew himself well enough to know he’d never come up with something like this.
The taller one (a little more than four feet tall, and not quite as bowlegged) spoke, phlegm rattling in the back of his throat like the sound of a kid’s straw that’s hit the bottom of a chocolate malt. “You the man Steven. You ours now.” The second one sniggered, and Steve was sure he saw the first one twitch in annoyance.
“I’m not a damn thing to you. Let me go and I’ll be on my way.”
The rest of the crowd around him murmured when the first one nodded, acting as though he’d expected that answer.
“Good. Fight is good.” He gestured to the second one, who stepped forward and unfolded a cloth on which he laid out the first bright or clean things Steven had seen in this place.
They rearranged the ropes so they could get easy access.
That was necessary; the needles weren’t very long, just thick.
He’d tried keeping track of how many they’d driven into him, but he lost count when they moved past his arms and shoulders and into the area between his collarbone and neck. It had all been very quiet, though; the things seemed very intent on what they were doing and aside from sucking his breath in past his teeth, he wasn’t making any noise.
Damned if he’d make any noise.
Eventually the sky was dark and they were done with the needles, finishing with his face — pushing the last few into the muscles of his jaw had almost got him to make a sound, but he hadn’t.
He hadn’t. He was sure he hadn’t.
He looked up to see the taller thing standing in front of him. Its lips were pulled back to damn near its rear molars in a dead man’s grin.
“Good. Ver’ good.” It nodded approvingly. “Strong.” It turned away. “MUD!”
He had time to puzzle it over. Several of the scrawnier creatures began wrestling the foul-smelling pot off the fire, dragging it through the dirt toward him.
When they began to pack the hot, stinking mess onto his body, using the pins as anchors to prevent it all from sliding off, Steven still didn’t make a sound.
But it was much harder this time.
It was starting to get dark.
It was starting to get dark and there was still nothing that made sense in any of this.
My family weren’t the sort of people who ended up interviewed about alien abductions in the Daily Sun; yet here I was, sitting on the back deck mulling over… what?
Muddy, barefoot footprints all around the back door — broad, flat things that made me think of Gollum. Smears on the windows that looked like finger marks with no prints. Drag marks heading toward the shelterbelt behind the house, before they vanished.
The kind of crap I used to think up.
Mom slid open the patio door and stepped into the gloom, her arms crossed as though she was cold. “You want anything to eat, bud?”
I shook my head. “Why’d you call me out here, Mom? I mean, I’m glad to be here and help you out, but what…” I let it go and shook my head again. It was quiet for several minutes, except for the sound of absent-minded bug swatting.
“I thought–” she started, then stopped. “I thought you might be… I thought you might know something.”
She sighed, and shrugged her shoulders in a way that seemed like an apology. “About… things that might help.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Eventually, she went back inside.