Had I even touched the sphere before the pulse of blue substance knocked me backwards and blinded my vision?
My thoughts objected to all efforts to explore the query as I felt a pressing sensation; my innards were squeezed, my head was pushed into mush, and the next thing I saw was my own vomit on a pale green floor.
Sharp, excited voices accosted my swimming brain. Cold metal gripped my arms to freeze me in place—though I felt that was unnecessary as movement seemed impossibly beyond me at the present time. I blinked rapidly and tried to keep in the remains of my stomach as a sensation akin to the peeling of a banana pulled at me from head to toe.
When the metal arms lifted me clean off the ground and shifted me neatly into an adjoining space, letting me go with a click, I realized I actually had been peeled; my grubby clothes were gone, but the stripping went far further as a torrent of steam penetrated my every pore. It was followed by a forceful rush of air that seemed to disassemble my every molecule before putting me back together again.
Another powerful jet of air pushed me through a wide, round door. I was on the floor, looking up at a group of curious beings, some of whom looked satisfied, others triumphant, but I wondered how I could discern these emotions at all through my shock at the appearance of the bodies around me.
Their skin was pale slate, a smooth gray with a subtle tint of blue. None had hair whatsoever, not even eyebrows that I could see. Two of the five had arcing, bony ridges along their shoulders, partially visible before the outer edges were covered by the coarse fabric of varying, worn hues they all wore. Otherwise, their features appeared human, but it was difficult for me to see the similarities past one other striking difference.
Their eyes were haunting, the same shape and size as any person’s, but completely black, with no whites or distinguishable pupils or irises at all. I could only tell they were appraising my features by the glitter of the light that caught their dark orbs with each of their stares’ subtle shifts. They were all roving my hair, my face, my torso, my limbs.
One spoke, a smooth, low voice in a foreign tongue. A couple of murmurs swept in from others. One of the two with shoulder ridges responded to his words and stepped forward. This individual’s voice was lighter, and as I listened to the other one with similar ridges, I decided both must be female.
My fear-laced analysis halted as a thin, transparent screen shot upwards from the floor to the right of the group, dazzling my eyes with its glow. The female ran her fingers over it in smooth, deliberate places like a pianist over ivory keys. Foreign letters and graphs appeared on its glass-like surface. She kept glancing at me, as if the display was informing her of all there was to know of my existence.
“No,” I slurred, wading through this questionable reality. I pushed myself off the floor. I glanced behind me and saw nothing but a blank, tarnished-copper colored wall, all evidence of the room I had just exited gone. Adrenaline quickly usurped my disorientation.
“What is this?” I asked, my voice coming out hoarse and shaky. My eyes fleeted from face to face, my heart pounding with each sight they brought me. The foreign language continued as they spoke to one another, not acknowledging my question. One, without ridges, asked the female utilizing the screen a question in a deep voice. She responded, reading the information on the screen, glancing at me. I felt my face flush with grating heat.
“What the hell is this?!” I shouted.
That got their attention. Feeling panicked, I stomped towards the group; they remained tense, but didn’t seem overly worried about my aggressive stance.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, glaring firmly at their faces as I met their disconcerting, glittering black eyes. I would have laughed at my own use of my mother’s favorite phrase when she caught me at my worst, had I not been so furiously scared.
The male who seemed to be doing most of the authoritative speaking asked something else of the female at the screen.
“Hey!” I yelled, stomping two paces forward before my attempt at forcing him to answer was stopped by a wall that slammed into being.
I stumbled backwards. Whatever surface I had just collided with was utterly invisible. All I could see were slightly anxious expressions from my spectators.
The one in charge, tall and dressed in dingy beige, finally spoke to me. He stooped low, putting out his hands in a calming gesture, speaking softly. I took fuming breaths; his tone was condescending and did not have the effect he intended.
“What are you?” I asked between breaths, my voice low, trying to cover my fear and confusion with solid anger. The male didn’t answer. Instead, he stood, alert, as a sixth being came into view from a side corridor that branched off the main, large room that contained us all, as well as clunky, unidentifiable machinery and large crates that made it resemble a ship’s cargo hold. He said something to the man in charge, and they both stepped away.
Eager looks were exchanged on everyone’s faces as a distressingly different voice spoke from somewhere beyond my field of vision. It was deep and guttural, and it had the tinny overlay of electronic transmission. I shuddered as the bizarre voice continued. It added a whole new level of fear to my already accosted brain.
I was distracted by a sudden image on the screen to my right—a picture of me, frightened, naked, and disheveled, fists clenched, eyes wide, obviously having just been taken.
“Hey!” I yelled again, tears burning the corners of my eyes. “Fuck you!” How dare they take a picture of me like that? How dare they do this to me?
The guttural voice finally ceased, and the man in beige returned. He was grinning and held aloft a paper-thin, translucent triangle between two fingers like a trophy. The others laughed and smiled as well, eyeing me like I, too, was a prize. My tears increased, blurring my vision, and one drop fell as a lurch made the ground shake. I braced my legs and waved my arms to keep my balance.
We were moving.
The male in charge gave orders to his crew, for I presumed, with fear, that this was a transport of some kind, and they began to disperse. The female at the screen firmly pushed a yellow square upon its surface.
A funny smell began to seep into my small room, tangy and sharp. I shook my head, blowing air through my nostrils to dispel the strong odor, but my lungs soon needed oxygen to replace it. I took a chest-expanding breath.
As soon as I did, I felt extraordinarily lightheaded. I was vaguely aware of two gray bodies stepping through the space which to me had been a wall, and then being lifted and strapped into place. In what position, I couldn’t say, as my world spun, and then nothing mattered anymore.
* * *
I awoke to see my insides displayed in grotesque detail on a screen angled over my head.
I screamed at the nightmare. For one horrific moment, I thought I had been dissected and that my body was open to the elements, my heart beating and muscles twitching without skin to hide them. I felt a tightening around my wrists and ankles; my flailing movements were restricted to short jerks.
The screen suddenly changed, and the full composition of my innards was depleted to an array of miniscule, red entanglements. They wormed their way through the shape of a body and coalesced into a still-beating heart. I realized, with horror and fascination, that my veins, arteries, capillaries, indeed my entire circulatory system, was floating above my head, mirroring my actual body, in which I dearly hoped it was still intact.
The obviousness of my pounding heart soon convinced me it was still in my chest, but other fears filled the vacancy without trouble. Two strangers with terrifying, solid black eyes stared down at me as they spoke to one another in the same unintelligible tongue I recognized from my last moment of true lucidity. But these were not the same individuals I had already encountered, and the small room was not the pale green from before, but a crisp, clean white. But most strikingly, everything around us was still. The nauseating tremors of movement were gone. If it was a transport I had been on before, I doubted I was still there. So, where was I? What had happened? I swallowed, then licked my dry lips, trying to gain the courage to use my voice.
One of the new strangers was female, judging by the raised shoulder ridges and small breasts beneath her clean, dark blue sash that draped across a teal fabric backdrop. She spoke to me, but didn’t skip a beat for an answer before she shined a bright light in my eyes. My pupils instinctively followed it. She seemed satisfied by this reaction and pulled the light away. I blinked a few times, and then stiffened as the flat platform I lay upon, not comfortable enough to be called a bed, raised upwards, then forwards, until I was vertical. My bare feet touched a cold floor.
I struggled against the restraints, still tight around my wrists and ankles, but froze when a third being walked into the room. He was male, dressed in a dark brown robe, a single piece of stiff fabric that fit his body and draped elegantly to the floor, with long, fitted sleeves to cover his slaty arms. He smoothly crossed them, his dark eyes analyzing me from head to toe. He asked a few questions in a slippery voice, but his words were for the two others in blue sashes behind me.
I interrupted their replies.
“Where am I?” I asked, my tone an ugly accusation. “Who are you?”
An unpleasant smile twitched at the lips of a mouth that was too wide for the male’s narrow face. He unfolded his arms and reached out to touch me, but then drew back his hand with a shudder from fingertips to shoulders, as if his curiosity was overcome by disgust. His grimace of distaste accompanied a mocking laugh, and he volleyed an order to the medics behind me with a raised chin of authority.
He then turned to go, raising his hand and flicking his wrist at the white door through which he had come, which smoothly shifted to the side. He was replaced by two large, muscled males with mustard-colored fabric slashed across their broad chests.
The newcomers approached me, and I yelled out an incoherent word as they touched my restraints with a bit of metal each carried in their hands. The cuffs opened, but were immediately replaced with smooth, hard hands, and I was separated from the vertical platform and carried down a pale salmon-stoned hallway.
A triggering sensation then pulsed from their hands and into me, causing a landslide of loosening muscles until my whole body went slack and my vision caved. Somehow, in what must have been less than a minute, I ended up outdoors, alone.
Eyes wide, I spun around, checking my surroundings for more of them, those strange, predatory beings who had taken me from my home, knocked me out, done who knows what, and left me...here.
There were no black-eyed beings in sight. In their place were trees, none over twelve feet high. They looked like they hailed from some kind of Eden, rich green and thriving in a temperature that felt utterly ideal, even in my naked state. My face wrinkled into a deep frown at that thought. I crossed my arms over my bare breasts, repressing a snarl as I continued to inspect my surroundings.
“No,” I whined. As out-of-doors as this garden seemed, it was enclosed. In front of me, one entire wall was blank and gray, stretching roughly thirty feet wide. Within an even shorter distance behind me was an intriguing structure.
I took a breath and took a slow step towards the small building, testing whether there would be any repercussions for my movement from my invisible captors. I was surprised when a different consequence halted my steps.
Something felt off. My step was light and springy. I peered down at the ground beneath my feet. It was covered in pale green grass, a color that provided a pleasant contrast to the deep green of the tree leaves and made a pink, fern-like groundcover look like dots on an Easter egg. I crouched down and ran my fingers across the blades, separating a few to see ordinary, brown soil beneath. I flattened the grass with my palm; the earth felt as firm as any I had ever touched.
I stood again and tested a few more steps across the grass.
“Huh,” I said, lifting a bare foot sideways to inspect the dirty sole. “Normal,” I assessed, and returned it to the ground. Then, hugging my breasts with one arm to prevent unnecessary bouncing, I jumped.
It was as if the ground were a taut drum, or like the soles of my feet had become permanent Air Jordans. It felt like I had jumped at least two inches higher than I usually could. I frowned at my feet suspiciously, and then resumed my walk towards my original goal with an extra thing to worry about.
The structure was small. Its solid wooden frame was open on the side that faced the wall behind me, save for one small section on my right that was blocked from view. The roof was covered in dried thatch that was a paler pink than the fronded plants below. I caught glimpses of dark fuchsia roots connecting the ground cover. I assumed this was the thatch’s origin.
I carefully touched a smooth wooden post at one side. Thin daylight flowed easily into the space. The only object within was a raised platform with a brown, cloth cushion. I peered into the corner behind the one enclosed section and saw a neatly crafted hole in the floor. A dispenser of thin cloth squares rested beside it. I realized its use without trouble.
“Perfect,” I muttered, and swallowed uncomfortably at the primitive toilet’s existence. If a toilet was deemed necessary, that meant I was being held here indefinitely. “Could have at least upped the accommodations,” I grumbled.
My rustic surroundings differed so highly from the high-tech screens, the smooth, metal cuffs, and the elegant clothing of my captors, I was at a fearful loss as to the meaning behind it all.
“Yes,” I then exhaled in relief. A square of blanket rested upon the cushioned bed. I shook it from its folds and wrapped the thick, wool-like fabric around my body. The covering of my privates was extremely welcome.
I looked again at the gray wall ahead of me. Unlike the primitive wood of the structure, the wall was smooth and solid, and, to my distress, seamless.
“There has to be a door,” I told myself. I strode forward, the blanket securely tucked into place near my armpits. I banged my palm against the wall, and then I ran my hands along its surface as I circled the enclosure. To my dismay and fury, the wall curved and elongated behind the cover of foliage. It met the edge of the small structure and continued, perfectly flush, on the other side to form a wide oval.
I screamed in frustration and slammed my fists against the surface, but it did no good to shift the wall that felt like glass, but was as solid as concrete.
A high-pitched shriek made me cry out and scramble back, tense and terrified. I looked frantically at my surroundings, but the shriek called again. It came, unmistakably, from the direction of the wall. But the wall was still blank and solid; there was nothing there that could produce such an unearthly sound.
I stood and waited for the sound to happen again, but all was silent. Then, a massive roar echoed from a distance, followed by a riot of sharp chirps and another desperate shriek, as if the wall shrouded a large, hollow space rife with monsters.
The string of tension in my body was fiercely plucked by those sounds. I began to shake uncontrollably. I stepped back, terrified to turn my back on the barrier, and made my way to the wooden shelter. I crawled backwards onto the bed and curled myself into an upright ball, unable to handle anything else.
I couldn’t tell how many days passed after. Each was filled with light cast by an invisible sun, clear morning rays falling into a soft orange bed in an amount of time that seemed far too short.
I didn’t sleep well at night; the shrieks, howls, and moans from beyond the wall kept me on edge. Sometimes, I would gain the courage to roll out of bed and analyze a faint grid, visible far above me, through which a few distant stars gleamed. I peered up at the tiny lights with narrowed eyes, trying to piece together familiar groupings. But they all looked foreign and offset. Unsettled, I wondered if they even held the warriors of protection—Orion, Perseus, or Hercules, or the ever-watchful beasts—Ursa Major, Canes Venatici, or Pegasus. I wondered if I would find my own horoscope constellation, Aries; not that I had ever taken stock in such a thing, but at this point, I would welcome any guidance I could get.
Even if I could have slept perfectly, the nights, too, seemed short. I barely had time to sleep in darkness before the sun shone in my eyes again. As it was, I clung to the light, glad the fear of night only lasted so long.
My grumbling stomach was satiated each day by hard biscuits that were dispensed from a slot in the back wall of the shelter, a slot I had thoroughly investigated as a possible means of escape—the food had to come from somewhere—but had found to be inaccessible. The small spout that poured an allotted amount of water into a waiting wooden bowl was also too small, and the firm material too strong to prize open any further. I couldn’t even get my pinkie through, and a timed visual exploration—the water was only dispensed twice a day—showed my eye nothing but darkness.
While dry and unappealing, the biscuits were filling. My energy level remained high and the toilet was used with healthy regularity, so I assumed my jailers had somehow taken my nutritional needs into account. I thought of their thorough exploration of my body, made evident by the graphic display of my innards on the screen, and fought the urge to throw up the biscuits which were hard to choke down in the first place.
Twice, I was visited by intimidating beings with slate skin and black eyes. One, I recognized as the male with the slippery voice, who seemed to command enough respect that I assumed he was in charge of this infuriating operation. I dubbed him, “Boss”. The other visitor was “Doctor”, the female who had shined a flashlight in my eyes in the medical ward. They came through a door, out of my sight, and stood between the wall and my invisible one, revealing the space to be a narrow corridor. The second time, they were accompanied by an unfamiliar trio, who peered at me in fascination. I stayed shrouded in my blanket at the back of the structure, an obscured position that caused Boss to gesture at me with pursed lips. He gave a grunt of frustration and said some sideways comment to the others around him. The various shapes of their frowns and their raised or furrowed hairless eyebrow ridges told me they all agreed with his sentiment.
I couldn’t stand their scrutiny through the entrapping wall, but my attempts to reach the only other possible exit—the mysterious grid above me—did not go well. It was only visible at night, without the glare of sunlight. Unfortunately, it was difficult to safely climb trees in the dark.
Finally, a night came when I reached the top of one. I hoisted myself up via a handmade vine rope, grateful for the extra boost of height my body was now somehow capable of jumping. But, instead of bars to a cage, my stretched fingertips scraped a stone ceiling. The grid was some sort of projector or other piece of technology that helped simulate a false environment.
Furious, I scrambled down the tree’s limbs, but I missed a foothold and crashed to the ground. I couldn’t remember anything between then and the next morning—when I woke up to a disturbing sight.
Several large, orange and red-marbled blotches marred my skin. They were smooth and shiny and looked like flattened leeches.
I shot up from my reclining position on the bed. In one quick attempt, I lifted the edge of one with two fingernails in need of a trim and ripped it off my elbow. I instinctively flung it away; it landed on the foot of the bed not far from where I sat. I tucked my feet closer to me, wiggling my toes as I writhed amidst goosebumps.
I eyed the slick orange thing, dormant on the bare cushion. It continued to do nothing. I carefully withdrew my eyes, keeping the speck of orange in my periphery, and dared to inspect my elbow in the morning light of the invisible sun.
My skin was yellow and blotchy. I scrunched my eyebrows and pressed a finger on one of the circles. A dull ache thrummed beneath.
They were bruises that had not been there only hours ago. Yet they were bruises that were nearly healed.
I frowned and spotted another bright patch on my right ankle. I shifted it closer, wincing a little. The unfamiliar material reminded me of orange roe on an artful piece of sushi; it appeared to have the same slick, gel-like consistency, but felt rubbery to the touch, smooth as plastic. I lifted one edge. More yellow bruising mottled my skin, intersected by a line of hardened scab. I pushed the edge back into place. It stuck as neatly to my skin as adhesive sticks new credit cards to paper in the mail. I lifted my eyes, now less concerned about the patches that were clearly bandages of some kind, and took in my nearby surroundings.
The enclosure was bare.
“How the hell did they pull them up so fast?” I murmured, marveling at the pristine, treeless lawn, now nothing but smooth, open grass. “How did I not wake up?”
My night before, when I had passed out beneath a canopy of branches after a less than graceful fall from a tree, drummed painfully into my memory. My captors had invaded my enclosure, patched me up, and then clearly decided the trees and foliage were a danger to my wellbeing.
Apparently, clothes were a danger as well, or simply damn unacceptable, because my only form of covering—my treasured blanket—was gone.
Angry tears pricked my eyes. “How dare they?”
A sudden terrible, piercing shriek rang against my eardrums. I nearly fell off the bed as I flailed with surprise. The now familiar cry from beyond my prison was ten times louder than before. I recovered my balance and lifted my round eyes from the structure and above the expanse of flat lawn.
My mouth gaped. The blank wall was gone. In its place was a huge, open hall, with a domed ceiling higher than the grid that covered my own smaller space. I was at once filled with a fierce hope of escape and a building fear of whatever mystery lay beyond my new home. The only way to investigate either possibility was to move forward. I ignored the tweaking pain of my ankle and walked with slow resolve towards the round hall. It was dimly lit, made of rough, brown stone, and had the air of a cave.
“Ow!” I exclaimed when I collided with a hard surface. I stumbled back, a hand on my head and a curse on my tongue.
Like my cell on the transport, there was an invisible wall in front of me.
“Fuck,” I said. “Fuck!”
I struck the wall again with my hand. It remained invisible and unyielding.
My palm froze against it, a deep breath my only movement, as a dark, looming shape swam into view along the right-hand curve of the chamber. I heard a lapping splash and saw a glinting rush of silver and neon before the shadow slipped out of sight.
My mouth felt dry, and my throat could only give a hoarse twitch when a fresh shriek sounded from across the room to my left. A bright red and yellow creature swirled around a tree with such speed, I could hardly make out more than a flash of bronze. When it stopped in the high branches, I saw it was covered in sharp bristles, tipped with its vibrant colors. They shielded a body that had the carriage of an elongated lemur, but was as large as a panther in size. The creature’s wide mouth opened to reveal a womb of razor teeth. I saw its throat expand, and then contract, as it called another shrill, piercing cry that echoed throughout the space.
I backed away. The monster eyed me with curiosity, but when I bravely made eye contact, it shrieked again and leapt from the tree. It smashed into its own invisible wall. I watched it slide comically down the glass-like barrier with an involuntary snicker. It shook its head lightly upon reaching the ground, which I noticed, with fascination, was blue and seemed sticky beneath the beast’s pincer paws. It raced around the trunk of another tree and sprang out of sight.
My brief laugh shuddered through my body with the strangeness of the scene I had just witnessed. I then jumped as a loud thump boomed through the room; the dim lightbulbs overhead instantly brightened. The vibrant blue floor of the nearby creature’s enclosure stood out brightly against the gold-speckled, glossy, black trunks of its trees.
The shadows within the crevices of the main room’s walls were exaggerated under the enhanced lights. Sounds echoed as if to create exotic mystery. But the space had an artificial feel, like a movie set...or the more elaborate exhibits I had witnessed being constructed, and had personally conducted tours through, for the One Earth Natural History and Cultural Museum.
The enormous, swimming shadow to my right, however, was extremely real. Now fully lit, I could see deep blue water, contained in an aquarium tank, that served as the habitat for a massive fish. It groaned through the water. Its rough skin resembled barnacles, its stubby head wide and unwieldy. A sweeping school of smaller creatures hurried past in a flurry of skeletal bioluminescence.
I reached out to verify once again that my protective barrier was still intact, laughing deliriously at my sudden change of heart. My attention was jerked backwards at a smaller thump within my safe space. I spun, fists raised in defense, but sighed heavily as I saw nothing but a small biscuit in the shelter, dispensed from the tiny slot in the wall.
I felt sick from the bizarre sights and sounds that flooded my senses, but I headed to the shelter anyway and sat down, picking up the biscuit. I stared at it, wondering dully how I had gotten here, how I had ever been so stupid as to approach an intoxicating light in a vacant desert. A trap, laid by some foreign species to catch their hapless prey.
I could feel my thoughts declining, falling into a place I had avoided until now, a place that contained my family, my friends, but was saved, in a sense, by the sound of voices from beyond my wall.
I clutched the biscuit, my nerves dangerously shot by exhaustion and fear, and trained my eyes on the open space to the left of the hall. Approaching voices grew louder. Titters of excitement joined the calm musings of interested discussion, intertwined with laughter and high-pitched shouts, followed by the mild calls of more reasonable tones.
Footsteps soon joined the fray, and I remained frozen, biscuit in hand, eyes wide, as a training group of foreign beings entered the hall.
A short one, small in frame, pointed a little blue finger right at me and shouted a high-pitched word. Taller, grayer beings, like all I had seen so far, spoke in a hubbub of interest as they followed the little one’s scamper towards my invisible wall. A gaggle of more little ones, all dull blue with pale gray spots, pressed their palms against the barrier, skin smushed flat, spreading their fingerprints wide.
I needed no interpretation to guess the meaning of their thrilled words.
The tiniest ones, clearly infants, stayed in the background, clinging to their mother’s backs by clasping the shoulder ridges, revealing the boney projections’ use. They were almost entirely a dull shade of blue, with big black eyes that stared at everything around them with an infant’s wonder. Their heads were smaller in proportion to their bodies than any infant’s I had ever seen, and they had no trouble swiveling their necks as they stayed upright with ease.
Their pubescent siblings resembled a bad case of acne, the large, round spots of childhood fading to leave the opposite coloring of tiny specks of blue as the slate gray pallor of adulthood took over. The wonder faded as well. The youths looked bored, lurking behind their parents in protest.
Seeing the unexpected children made me consider that these beings, whether human or not—a distinction I still had yet to decide—were not so very different than those I knew as family, as friends, as any people I had seen on my numerous travels. And yet they clearly saw me as something other, something lesser.
I continued to stare, as curiously as they did me, before I remembered I was naked and trapped, held here against my will, and was now being raked over by black eyes without any regard to my self-respect.
I considered approaching the wall, demanding they stop, that somebody give me answers, but what good had that done so far? After a moment of mortified indecision, my humiliation won out. I curled further against the wooden wall behind me, bowing my head so they couldn’t see my face.
I heard murmurs of excitement, no doubt because I had simply moved, and then a few whines of disappointment when I failed to do so again. Finally, the group dispersed. I glimpsed some moving on to the other two enclosures, and although I heard more sounds of amazement and interest, none seemed as impressed as they had been with me.
I was new.
When their voices faded into silence, I looked up, only to hear the sound of more getting closer, once again from the left of the hall. I looked frantically around. My blanket somehow gone, I sought another way to hide myself. I glanced at the nearby toilet. The small area carried the faint smell of my own excrement, despite the fact that it all slid down a shoot made of some substance that seemed to repel anything from sticking. I had been unable to stomach the idea of inspecting this opening for an escape route from my prison, but the idea was looking all the more appealing as the new set of voices drew nearer.
Then, my eyes widened. “Oh, you mother-fucking...”
My ellipses drew out into a long silence before a deep-seated volcano of expletives erupted from my mouth.
The small partial wall that had once hid the toilet from view was gone. I leapt up and desperately scoured the enclosure. There was nothing for me to hide behind.
I glimpsed another mass of shifting slate and froze. More black eyes met mine, more fingers pointed, more mouths babbled.
As the sounds of their voices mingled with the shrieks, groans, and roars of my neighboring creatures, I attempted to wrap my head around my new, increasingly obvious reality.
I was in a zoo. A living artifact on display.
But who on Earth were my visitors, these humanoid people, horrifically different from any I had seen before, who had put me in this hell?
I considered the strangeness of the stars, the foreign plants and creatures, the lightweight feeling in my steps that made me now wonder, in grueling disbelief, if it was somehow due to a change in gravity. I took an encompassing breath.
My breaths turned to short pants. I gritted my teeth and forced them to slow. I pulled on the rumble in my center to breathe instead in the deliberate motions of seething anger. Anger was an emotion I could handle. My hands clenched into fists at my sides. I drew myself up to my full height, braced my legs, and stretched every muscle into a powerful stance. No matter how scared, I refused to cower again.
A fresh group of people approached the transparent wall, gibbering and laughing. This time, the fingers immediately thrust in my direction were aimed specifically at my orange-wrapped ankle. A chorus of cooing noises and clucks of tongues soon followed. Judging by their round, full eyes and indulgent smiles, it became clear they thought I was cute.
I looked down at my ankle, and images of kittens in casts and coned dogs popped into my mind. I began to shake with rage.
In response, a group of young ones started making faces at me. They stretched their mouths wide with their fingers, held their hands around their eyes to mimic my round, green-eyed stare, and then pulled invisible tethers from their bald heads to emulate my hair. When one of the nearby adults laughed at the children’s antics and joined indulgently in their behavior, I could no longer stomach their disrespect.
I bent over and dragged my fingers into the earth, feeling dirt push under my fingernails. I balled up my hands and stood again, fists full of soil. With a wrenching yell, I threw the clods at the barrier.
The children screamed and jumped back in fright. Their parents consoled them, holding them close; some lifted them into their arms. Encouraged by their reactions, I scooped up more handfuls. Little bombs of earth exploded in the spectators’ faces as I threw fist after fist. Soon, the ground beneath me was nothing but torn tufts of grass upended at my feet.
There was laughter in my ears and smiles within my vision. The instant of fear the crowd had felt had melted quickly enough into amusement. Protected as they were by the dirt-proof wall, they had decided my outburst was funny.
I rushed the barrier, pounding against its unyielding surface with raised fists, shouting curses that seemed to be the only vocabulary left to me in this horrific condition. The spectators backed further away. I noticed with satisfaction that this particular form of entertainment was becoming more disturbing than comical to the majority.
I slowed my tirade, heaving angry breaths, my throat sore from yelling.
A languid slither of brown robes emerged through the dispersing crowd. I had not seen Boss in days, but it seemed my actions had brought him out. He eyed me with distaste while speaking to a stern female with three small children at her heels.
His raised, hairless eyebrows and hurried frown were extremely apologetic, assuring the woman all was well, but she didn’t look convinced. Eventually, he gestured calmly that she accompany him to some place beyond the hall. I aimed a confident smirk in his direction as he met my eyes with a lingering glare. I watched his back until his footsteps faded.
Another unearthly shriek from my neighbor interrupted the aftermath of my encounter with my captor. I watched the large, spindly creature swirl its way up a tree. It shrieked again at the group of visitors clustered around its cage.
Someone must have made eye contact. The creature leapt off its tree, right towards the watching group, and smacked heavily into the invisible wall. It slid down in the flattened, ungainly position that was just as comical as I had witnessed before. Hitting the sticky, blue ground of its habitat, it shook its head lightly and crept into the background to sulk.
I took a step back as if I had been hit in the chest with a battering ram. That’s how I looked to them. A stupid animal, too dumb to know any better, too wild to act civilized—to act human.
Except these people weren’t human. And I was not an animal.
I felt sorry for the creature across the hall. I wondered if it was as aware of its degradation as me. Perhaps it was, but for all the similarities of our conditions, even in our reactions to our captivity, there was a striking difference between me and it. The yellow and red creature was not intelligent enough to remember that the invisible barrier existed. Every time it was aggravated, it would leap at the wall, and every time, it was shocked when it collided with a solid surface.
I was clearly more intelligent than the creature across the hall. Why these people couldn’t see that, I didn’t know, but hurling dirt clods and shouting obscenities was not going to convince them.
My brain struck flint to cause a dazzling, mental spark, and I turned around and marched to the shelter. I reached the left side of it, braced my foot against one of the wooden panels, and got a good grip on the one beside it. I pulled.
I stumbled back. A broken strip of wood was in my hands.
“Perfect,” I praised, and dug a fingernail into the dry meat. It left an indent; the wood was soft enough to make a hole.
I grinned and felt a swell of hope as I pulled at another section of my structure. Soon, the air was full of the sharp cracks and snaps of splintered wood.
I could feel the pressure of many watching eyes, growing in number as people lingered to watch my activities.
“Keep staring,” I muttered ruefully. I wanted a large audience.
I scrambled to the top of my shelter’s pale pink roof. Though the fern-like foliage which had once covered my habitat was gone, its dried roots remained as thatch. It would make due for the rope I needed. I found one that was long and strong enough, and then gathered small tufts of thatch.
I looked down. Broken pieces of wood were scattered inside my shelter and on the lawn, discarded in my hasty search for the correct pieces for my purpose. It looked a mess, but that was alright with me. Maybe it would piss off Boss. At this point, I didn’t care about the repercussions.
I jumped down, gathered my choice pieces of wood from a pile, and walked to an open space right in front of my audience. I sat and placed a thin, flat strip of wood on the ground. I put a somewhat thicker piece on top of it, making sure the quarter-sized hole I had pecked out was aligned over the first piece.
I picked up a long, slightly bowed stick and lashed the rope into tight knots to either end. I then took a roughly eight-inch-long stick and looped it tightly in the middle of the rope until the connection felt taut in my hand. I turned the short stick upright and notched it into the hole in the base board. I placed a final, rounded piece of wood on top of the stick to create a handhold.
I took a breath, and then put my right knee on the ground and my left foot on top of the board. I gripped the handhold and pushed my shin heavily on my wrist. I drew back my other hand and began to rapidly run the bow back and forth across the stick. The stick twirled in the hole. I breathed steadily, in and out, in and out, as I put all my energy into creating friction.
I silently thanked my teacher of the wilderness survival course that I had once taken for college credit for this priceless skill. I had never had the need to use a bow drill in a true survival situation, but I decided this unquestionably fell under that category. While the current need for the contraption was far different from what I had ever anticipated, I could only hope it would do me some good now.
A wisp of smoke issued from the hole, and I heard sounds of approval and curiosity from my watchers. I stopped drilling and set my implements aside. The hole was charred black at the edges.
I gently lifted the piece of wood to see the flatter piece beneath. A black powder fed a thin stream of smoke into my nostrils. My heart leapt with hope, but I worked with slow and steady hands to lift the newborn coal and pour it into my packet of thatch tinder.
It hit the thatch with a tiny crackle. More smoke wafted from the tinder, and I pursed my lips and blew a thin stream of air into its heart. A flare of orange licked the thatch within. I pulled away and tilted the tinder packet until a burst of flame swept into open sight.
Gasps reached my ears. I looked up and smiled at my audience, nodding vigorously and pointing to the flame in my hand.
“See?” I said excitedly. I sidled carefully to a nearby tripod of wood I had prepared and placed the burning tinder within. More thatch and twigs inside caught flame. Soon, I had a small campfire crackling away in my enclosure.
I stood and placed a firm hand on my chest. I then pointed at the fire.
Man made fire. It was, in an ancient sense, what separated us from beasts.
Grand smiles and open applause greeted my action. They actually clapped their hands, such a human gesture. But their enthusiasm was laced with humor, and many clucked their tongues again in a sound I knew expressed endearment.
I frowned and approached the barrier.
“What is wrong with you people?” I demanded. I waved my arms frantically from them, to me, to the fire, but no one was listening anymore. The show was over, and people began to drift off to see what antics my beastly neighbors were getting up to.
“No!” I shouted. “No, come back! Look what I did! I made this!” I gestured again to the fire. Then I pounded my fists against the barrier, trying desperately to get the attention of those who remained, but my renewed aggression bored them, and they were gone.
“No,” I said, stumbling back. “How can they—I’m not...”
I stared at my fire, hopeless.
A crack of thunder jolted a buzz of nerves down my spine. Rain poured down. My fire sputtered out. I was instantly soaked. I walked numbly to my shelter and slumped to the bed. I stared at the floor.
I didn’t know how long I sat there, but eventually, the lights outside dimmed. The rain continued. I was alone.
Then Boss strode into view, and his expression made everything worse.
He sneered at me, his arms crossed. No longer angry as he had been earlier, now, he was cocky. He spoke and gestured to me, to the treeless lawn, to the exposed toilet—which I had forgone eating and drinking that day to avoid—and to the deluge of rain. Although I could not understand a word, his condescending meaning was perfectly clear:
“This is what you get for misbehaving.”
I felt my lips twitch and my nostrils flare as my face contorted in rage. I scrambled onto the ground and grasped a fistful of sloppy mud and hurled it at his face. It smacked into the invisible wall and slid down the barrier. He laughed in amusement, with a curled lip of disgust, and left me to my misery.
I stumbled back and hit the bed with the backs of my thighs. I fell into it and curled up on my side, hugging my knees as the cold rain trickled down onto my skin through the leaks in the thatch I had created.
“I want Dad,” my voice crumbled. I wanted Grandma, and I wanted Abuelo and Abuela. I wanted Crispin, and even good old Elias Smith at my museum. I wanted home.
I squeezed tears out of my eyes with a fierce squint. Dad had Claire now, at least. I was more grateful for that last phone call with him than he would ever know. I tried to picture the woman who I hoped would fill my absence. For some reason, I imagined she was a bright, plump blonde, maybe because those traits would match Dad’s sandy pate and freckled red face. I hoped they would be happy. I hoped he wouldn’t miss me too much.
More tears came and turned to heaving sobs. I had rarely felt homesick, and my one moment of true heartache was seventeen years past. This was a shuddering pain so consuming, I knew I was suffering from both in droves.
Eventually, my chest stopped heaving, and my heart slowed. I felt spent, and I curled further into myself and clutched a fistful of hair like an infant grasping its mother’s finger. My body rocked gently of its own accord, and I fell asleep to a song in my ears, an old lullaby Mom used to sing:
A la roro niño
A lo roro ya
Duérmete mi niño
Duérmete mi amor.
Este niño lindo
Que nació de mañana,
Quiere que lo lleven
A pasear en carcacha.
Este niño lindo
Que nació de día
Quiere que lo lleven
A la dulcería
Que nació de noche
Quiere que lo lleven
A pasear en coche.
Este niño lindo
Se quiere dormir,
Y el pícaro sueño
No quiere venir.