A woman is trapped in an alien prison cell.
My name is Freya Savitri, and I am surrounded by mice and rats. A simple set of words in English. Arratoi in Basque. Tikus in indonesian. Panya in Swahili. Pakov in Bosnian. Szczur in Polish. Makoswe in Croatian. Or just Gesshru in their own language, though the word didn’t sound the same coming from my mouth. The tone and inflections were probably close enough. The volume and bass, the deep throated pitch, were hopelessly different. None of them were really earth rodents, but they might qualify if finally put under anatomical scrutiny.
Clearly mammalian, giving live birth and possessing a great deal of hair. They had two large incisors separate from the molars, lending to a mouse like appearance. They were small, they were warm blooded, they possessed something at least akin to nipples that I could only make assumptions as to their actual purpose.
My barely clothed form, cold and sticky from the grimy sweat, shuddered through another shaking breath. Tears spreading an uncomfortable salty dampness down my cheeks, occasionally dripping onto my knees. I hugged myself, back and shoulders frigid against the metal doorway, feet braced against the smooth tile flooring. The sound of whimpering caught my ear from across the room …
But I couldn’t think about that.
I closed my eyes and focused on the words, focused on the sounds. I focused on the patterns. Tears, a word that’s spelled strangely even if spoken simply in English. Suza in Croatian, dissiri in Esperanto, rhwygo in Welsh, Asul in Hindi, cuimilt in Irish, ticrita in Maltese, trane in German. The English word was annoying to me on a personal level, for the word for a single drop of salty liquid from the eyes used to express an extreme state of emotion was spelled the same as the word for rending, tearing, to take something whole and rip it in two.
I could still see the face of that poor woman, her head in my left arm and her legs in my right. Vividly I recalled the way my muscles flexed, the arms pulling farther apart. Her high pitch squealing, the frantic jerks, as her body wasn’t able to stretch that far.
“Be calm, Freya, be calm.” I told myself, rocking back and forth from my spot at the doorway. The light plastics of that accursed collar rubbing against my throat. The skin underneath chafed, and though it was attached solidly to the base of my spine my throat would still expand out to rub against the underside with each word. With each breath.
Unlike the rest of my armor, this part wasn’t padded. One learns to get used to it.
“Ruhe, Tyyni, Lungchine, Calme, Tenang, Calma, Spokoj, Sakin …” the words flew out, my eyes still closed. This was how I relaxed, this was how I beat down the oppressive terror welling up inside my chest. The abject horror for what I’d witnessed, for what has been done with my own hands. The fear of never being able to speak to my comrades, to my crew, face to face and free of this hell. The worry that I’ll never get home.
That I’ll die before anyone back at Earth knows something went wrong for the away team. That I’ll be dead, and this civilization long buried before anyone from home makes it to this world. And worse. The knowledge, the absolute assurance, that the next time my body is forced to stiffen and crouch down, control in the hands of a tiny little alien somewhere outside these walls, I’ll be forced to do something unspeakable.
I count the words, I play back the meanings in my head. I’m a god dammed linguist! I’m no soldier, no monster, no killing machine to enforce a brutal doctrine. To fight and to kill were actions that had their place in a culture, and were sometimes necessary. To slaughter the helpless on a flimsy grounds as they beg for your mercy, beg for just a bit of lenience, when their only crime was --- I didn’t even know the charges. Of course I wasn’t in the briefing room when Tasgall was given the details of his mission, though I can piece together some of it.
“Yes” I said aloud, closing my eyes to think. Slow breaths supped in the stale and frigid air as I forced myself to calm down. Focus on the details, take in everything that happened and sort out the puzzle. I could do that. It’s what I was trained to do.
Small province on the far southern edge of the Gashn empire. East by my understanding of the setting sun and the rising moon, meaning it wasn’t along the front lines of their skirmish against the northern tribes. But it also wasn’t near the coastline, where the last of the Cavni foothold on this continent was trying to hold out.
Eastern scum, that was Tasgall’s summary of their now ruined village. They weren’t aiding in military endeavors, obviously, far too much of their production went into paying the monthly tribute. Is this simply what happens to a town when they aren’t profitable enough?
That doesn’t make as much logistical sense as one might think. So long as they are not using more than they produce, any set of villages placed along the bordering lands between Gashn territories and the far wastes are just another target that isn’t you. Another supply of bodies to draw soldiers from? No, the Gashn wouldn’t utilize the impure as a fighting force. Those of the low castes being differentiated as something else. Something worthless. They would never be allowed among the army.
Maybe the higher command wanted to build some facility in that location and they used missing payments as an excuse to perform some hostile renovations? If they attack on a whim they prove themselves a danger to the people. An unpredictable, unreasonable danger that if allowed to live, will simply do more harm. But with the pretence of calling this punishment the Gashn empire could obtain two simultaneous objectives, the first being an actual advantage in destroying the city to clear space and populace. The second to instill terror in neighboring communities, making it clear if you don’t work hard and move fast to deliver your tribute on time then this is what happens.
They would appear almost reasonable, even if in truth they are not. What advantage might the rubble of a city prove, though? It is near the wastes. Near the forests. Far from the ocean by Gesshru standards, though I personally could walk the distance in a day. A large facility would be useful. As the grounds for a forward military base it would be a somewhat protected area from which to launch attacks and consolidate supplies for the actual army further north. It could watch the eastern border, at least a part of it, and keep forces stationed to intercept.
This made sense. This made the actions, all of that death, at least have some rational meaning behind it. Tactical advantage, this was something I could understand. Something I could wrap my thoughts around and analyze more deeply. Lose a small, otherwise worthless town of people with a low social value behind them, and in exchange gain a large supply of free territory. I suspect they wouldn’t want to work there, for with the inhabitants killed an army would have to carry in workers to till the fields, gather water, pluck berries off of the local forests. Or maybe they would just import the supplies on carts.
Or carry the supplies by Max …
I cringed again, wishing for the days when dragging a box of stuff from one storehouse to another was a more common reason to be let out of the cage than the more brutal assignments I’ve been on as of late. Were it up to me, I’d instead have pu---“
“Hrrmph!” a squeaky tone pined out from roughly ten feet away. I turned to stare at the metallic food bowl with its piles of mushy slop. It was struggling. The plastic wrapped bundle twisted it’s feet up toward the base of its tail, rolled slowly toward the left, and then jutted the outlines of its knee’s out. The poor thing simply got itself facedown into the gruel, feet twitching so very feebly.
It was like watching a worm try to squiggle its way through gel. Even if you didn’t stop the poor thing, there wasn’t a lot of progress being made. Back facing up I could see the wrapped outlines of its tail and thighs. I could make out the shoulder blades and the back of its head. The ears were pinned down in what was probably a very uncomfortable position, vacuum sealed between two sheets of the synthetic material.
It was suffering.
I couldn’t rightly tell if the thing was male or female, but the longer it stayed inside the wrapping the more time it would spend miserable. Blind and deaf, no sense of smell, incapable of drawing a new breath. It wormed again, a rippling flop as it tries to rise it’s head up, only to fall back down amongst the slop. I got a look at the outline on its face, mouth open in a contorted scream, whiskers pinned to the sides. All it accomplished was smearing the wrapper in mushy foodstuff.
“Breathe Freya, be calm.” My thunderous voice echoed against the walls.
I stood up.
It was slow, but I managed to get those knees to bend. I could manage to bear the weight, leaning against the wall for support until I was standing at full height. My bloodstained knuckles dripped, splashes of brown and red marring the pristine floor. I didn’t care. My feet, bare against the polished tiles, were uncomfortably cold.
A deep inhale through the nose, drawing as much air into those pained lungs as possible. A forceful exhale through the mouth, letting everything out in a sudden burst.
“That’s it Freya, you can do this.”
Then I took a step toward the bowl. A single step.
The Gesshru in its wrapping went completely still.
Another step, my footfalls ringing loudly against the walls of that secure chamber.
The poor Gesshru writhed in a flurry of all new movement, lashing out in wild abandon as if to get somewhere. Anywhere. It’s shoulders pushed their way deeper into the mushy gray slop.
Another step. The poor thing was halfway buried now, and moving like it was desperate.
I would have preferred having something soft here to stand on, but the bedding was the only hiding place in the entire room. And I know from experience that sitting on it wouldn’t be very appreciated by anyone who wished to pretend I wasn’t here.
My hands grabbed onto the creature’s feet, making sure to pinch over the plastic rather than apply pressure to the body inside. The muffled shrieks intensified, high pitched squeals digging their way into my ear. I wish they weren’t so familiar.
The other hand gripped his head, taking note of just how much sticky food was soaked into the outside of its wrapping. It wasn’t worth bothering with, if trying to lick the stuff off gave the trapped creature nightmares about being swallowed wrapper and all, not to mention the taste of rubber wasn’t very appealing. More important was simply letting the creature move and breathe for the first time in what had to have been hours.
Thumb and index closing around the seams, one set of fingers pinching over the left side while my other hand pinched at the right. I had to apply more pressure than one might think to make the rubbery plastic unseal, but it did so with the same popping noise as opening up a fresh bag of chips. Air was quick to fill the void between each sheet, and as usual it was a pair of pink, upturned rat feet that greeted my senses instead of much more agreeable fried potato crisps.
Maneuvering to the side so that my hands were over the bare floor instead of directly above the food bowl, lowering myself down so the tiny rodent was only held inches off the ground. With a steady tug and practiced ease I peeled away both layers of wrapping and fully exposed the nude, brown furred Gesshru to the harsh light of my enclosure. His tail lashed like an angry whip, the horns atop his forehead pointed toward me with those flaps of smooth skin draping down. His secondary ears pulled back in fright and discomfort.
“OhCorewhatisthataahhhdon’teatme!” came the predictable screams, a now freed male all but cartwheeling backward off my hands to flop against the tiles. Winded at first, I simply sat and watched as he lifted himself up, crawled onto two legs, and took off running for the nearest door. Five, six feet away? I let him run and turned my attention to what was actually edible.
“If you find a way out of here, let me know little guy.” I clicked, making sure to suck air through my lips and make the squeaks and chirps of a gesshru language. Still too deep in bass and tone for his four ears to pick up with any effectiveness, but the act of talking to someone was comforting all the same.
“Help! HEeeeeelp!” he squealed, bapping his tiny little paws against the polished metal in a most comical display.
With a heavy sigh I lowered myself into a relaxed seat, dipped my cupped hands into the bowl of gruel, and scooped a handful up to my lips. When I looked back I could see his reaction. Every slurp, every gulp, made the man’s spine twitch. I could see that shiver sliding down his tail, his shaking growing worse and worse, his eyes a solid black as pupils expanded. It was almost insulting, to know that he was just as disgusted by my eating arrangements as I was, with only my drinking water to wash the mushy grey paste off my fingertips. More efficient to just lick them clean as I longed for what might pass as a spoon.
The door, as always, gave my ‘victim’ no response.
“This can’t be happening, by the Core this can’t by happening … no, nononono oh Core no.” came the twitching mumbles. “J-just, just think Soto, you’ve got to find some way out of this. The Max isn’t eating me right now, that gives me time.”
“I don’t eat live food.” I replied, only a short glance behind my shoulder to see his reaction.
“Eeeep!” he dove to one side and curled up on himself, but I could hear his footsteps after I turned away. “C-core that thing is loud … don’t let it roar at me, don’t let it catch me … oh Core at the rate it’s eating that bowls going to be empty in five minutes.”
“That’s only assuming I’m not going to ration the paste.” I answered, still not looking at him. To be honest he was a more interesting subject matter for my attention than this gloopy mess of what would more affectionately be referred to as nutriment paste than an actual meal, but the stare of a human’s eyes were rather intense. He was intimidated enough without me boring down on him.
“Aaahhhhowowow, my ears.” He moaned, just as predictably, with yet another reminder that I should whisper when speaking. “OhCore I’ve got to think, got to think … the whole place can’t be airtight. They’ve probably got some sort of ventilation system taking out old fart breath from the monster and replacing it with fresh stuff. Otherwise the smell would be overwhelming. Maybe I can fit through somehow? Hmm. What on these walls looks like a pipe …”
“Grating is to your left.” I answered helpfully in sounds he probably thought of as impatient growls or angry rumblings. My hand shot out and pointed to a maintenance hatch just big enough for a Gesshru to squeeze inside, but it’s purpose was to let mechanics slip inside to maintain the intricate tubes, pipes, wires, and machinery that handled daily feeding and prisoner storage. I think there was probably an air tank somewhere, but the resupply was handled by a rebreather recycling the air instead of siphoning fresh from the outside.
Human technology, stolen and repurposed after the betrayal. The only pleasant thing I could note from that exchange is the fact they learned how to build their own, instead of simply scavenging the tools from our ship and calling it a day.
“Core that thing is a noisy eater … hmm. O-okay, there’s a giant blanket. Pillow? Nest probably, don’t go near that unless I want to see what a Max egg looks like. Door is huge, well duh, but I’m not going to shove myself between the cracks. Oh? Tube in the wall, that must be where I came in … from a food hatch. And I go up the tube I’ll probably end up inside some food storage tank. Maybe hang around inside, wait for someone to put more food in, and then leap out when they least expect it?”
“If you’re planning on seeing my ‘eggs’ then you’d have to end up in a far more intimate place than my bed, asshole. On the right track, but it’s still not going to happen.” My tone probably portrayed more annoyance than I would have preferred, but ignorance of that scale is so very annoying, and I know he wouldn’t necessarily appreciate an anatomy lesson. Gesshru don’t even lay eggs, why in hell would they assume I did?
“Jeeze those growls are terrifying.” He responded, now stepping to the side and, from what I could tell at a glance, hugging the walls while searching for some form of exit. The tiny Gesshru was probably ignoring my meal about as much as I was trying to ignore him.
“Yeah well, as soon as I figure out how to be less terrifying I’ll let you know. Trust me whatever your name is, I’m the least dangerous thing in this compound.” I retorted, pausing only to slide another handful of the slop into my lips. “Except maybe Loren. If he’s still alive then I’m way more dangerous than he is, don’t have that whole vow of pacifism holding me back.”
I know I heard ‘Soto’ in reference to himself, but I was trying to forget that. Easier if he’s just a specimen. Just a nameless hunk of meat already scheduled for execution. If only someone other than me would take up the job of executioner.
“I just … ohcore that tube is so very high up. Can I jump to it? Hmm. Maybe if I can get the Max to sit still I can leap off her shoulders.”
“How much longer can he hold out …” I mused in a fit of depression. The rest of my crew no better off than I was, forced to endure the same horror and humiliation. Another scoop, another slurp.
“She’s going to run out of food in that bowl eventually, meaning I’ve got a serious time limit.” The rodent tells himself.
“And then what are we going to do even if we did escape? Our craft wasn’t built for a return trip. Maybe I could … well okay I know my first course of action would be to kill a few specific rodents.” We weren’t even talking to each other at this point.
“So loud, so very loud … I might die inside that food paste even if I do make it.”
“Next on the agenda is maybe end that stupid war. Our whole purpose was to study the indigenous life forms, if I get my ankles deep into their version of politics we might learn a bit. At the cost of interfering more than we already have. Screwing over their research and development even further.”
“But if I die here and now, at the hands of some furless pink monster, there isn’t even that slim chance for survival. Got to take this … got to make this count …”
“A subsequent team from earth exploratory forces will come. Eventually. If we can hold out long enough there’s always that chance to be pulled out of here. Just need to think, just need to keep going.”
“Here goes nothing. OhCore I want to shout a battle cry, but I also don’t want her to hear me coming.”
My heart pounded at the sound of his feet, pitter-patter against the tiles just behind me. He was running full tilt, probably on all fours. With a heavy sigh I lowered my shoulders, slouched my back, and tried not to roll my eyes.
“Go for it little guy, I’ll catch you if you start to slip.” Was my only response. The fact he can’t understand me and won’t even bother to try always makes this so much harder than it needs to be.
The sensation of cold pinpricks on my shoulder, four feet had stabbed onto the exposed flesh while his claws gripped the fabric of my bra. My skin involuntarily twitched, but I made sure to keep still and stable. Ever the willing platform if he wanted to pull off this mad stunt. His claws were sharp, and as he scrambled up at high speed there was this annoying sting of a scratch, but this was nowhere near long enough to draw blood.
I kept my head still. Once he was on my shoulder I could see that fearful determination, the ears held back and the horns pointed forward, as he prepared to jump. Just out of the corner of my vision I saw that slender, well toned body coated in fur so smooth it was a delight to feel against my cheek.
The leap came, and I could feel his tail brush against my neck. He made it about half a foot before he started to fall toward my bowl of food.
“Noo! Nononono! Aahhh! I’mnotfoodOhCoregetmeoutofhereStoooop!”
I wasn’t having any of that, and from the panicked squeals neither was he. My wet, slobber coated hand still grimy from sifting through the food bowl got to experience that warm fuzz, the pleasant squishy sensation of having a Gesshru belly pressed against my palms, while his chest and thighs were curled up between my fingers.
“Almost, another three feet and you might have made it.” I boomed down at him with yet more whispered sqks and chitters, always practicing to make sure I got the vowels right. He tried to cover his ears with arms now pinned to his side. I didn’t hold him there long enough to get another complaint, simply setting him down next to the bowl and drawing my hand back.
“No!Nonono! I was so close, I can’t die here! I won’t let this happen!” he closed his eyes, screamed wildly, and at the last moment I could feel his jaws slink down and crunch into the joint of my finger.
That broke the skin.
Drops of red pooling forth around his lips.
His arms pushed off my palm and I could see his hind legs coiling for a leap. If he wanted he could have stayed there and kept gnawing, but the defensive bite was simply to show me wasn’t going down without a fight. Once my fingers uncurled and the tiny little rodent was at floor level, he took off running and was gasping at the opposite wall at about the same time I thought to roll my eyes.
“A strong rebellious desire, panic put toward a useful effort if one were to assume I was actually dangerous.” I mused, thinking over for the hundredth time what this particular reaction meant. I suppose it was nice to record the range of typical to atypical response. “Either speaking to himself, speaking to an ancestor, or talking directly to what the subject perceives as a higher power.”
“Expletive, expletive, oh very strong expletive I can’t believe I just did that.” The Gesshru breathed, his left shoulder braced against the far wall while he stared at me and my rumblings. This left me mildly annoyed when I could tell what the word was for based on context, but I’ve never heard this one before. Information to file away for later.
“When physically threatened and presented with a means to fight back, the subject instantly lashed out toward the base of the intermediate phalanges on my index finger, teeth twisted horizontally to slice with remarkable accuracy into the interphalangeal joint.”
Lifting my finger up for close examination of the wound, he had definitely struck through a vessel, but while potentially a risk to the bones if his teeth were to linger between those joints, I wasn’t at risk of bleeding out. Especially not if there were still any medical nanites coursing through my system.
“Preliminary examination suggests that were I to have continued holding onto the subject in perceived hostility, I might have lost the top half of my finger. Despite the subject’s apparent and advertized ignorance of human culture and biology I must conclude that he houses an intimate knowledge of biomechanical structure and the weak points on a flesh and bone based system.”
“I can’t believe I just did that.” He gasps again, ignoring me as always. “Ohcore that was so bad, soo, so very bad, I got some of that thing’s mucus in my /mouth/ ohcorethisisbad. N-next it’s going to eject it’s bone spikes a-and impale me …” he shivers, his gaze cast so very nervously toward my bleeding hand. The fresh wounds from this bite weren’t even as serious as the scrapes and bruises already dotting my knuckles. “T-then … ohcore then comes the proboscis, draining my blood away to replenish its own!”
“Secondary theory.” I droned in English now, my annoyance reaching an all-time high. “The subject knows almost nothing about human biology and the results examined moments prior were the effect of inexplicable luck on part of the rodent’s jaw placement.”
With a shake of my head, I lifted my bare legs up enough to squeeze my palm behind the knee, then sat back down. Squashing the bloodstained fingers between thigh and foreleg, the pink flesh forming a light seal and applying at least some pressure. It was either this or take my top off and use the fabric for a bandage, which wouldn’t have been worth it even if I had lost a whole finger.
I simply decided to eat with my other hand for the moment.
“A-any time now … it’s all over, just as soon as she finishes.” The Gesshru mumbled, not even bothering to hide. Perhaps keeping distance just below the feeding tube was enough for him, or perhaps he felt that he’d successfully deterred me from adding him to the dinner bowl.
Another handful to fill my lips. A second. A third. A fourth and a fifth. As I looked to what was roughly half the remaining meal, I had to once more make that troublesome call on how far to push. How much do I risk? The soldiers keeping me here wanted me to eat this easterner, and worse they wanted me to do so on reflex. Conditioning, learn their taste, as if that might actually work, and utilize this fact as a terror weapon against the remaining populous.
I wasn’t going to do that. Not while he was still alive at least. And I was not about to lower myself into killing innocent people, especially not ones who would make an interesting subject for study.
As punishment they enact the same policy as a scornful parent training their children to consume broccoli. No more food until you’ve eaten what’s on your plate. I won’t get another meal until this quivering, panicked man is eaten.
I can go three days without food fairly comfortably, and I can last upwards of a week without food so long as I’m willing to suffer the muscle atrophy and constant burning ache as my body dips into energy reserves and cannibalizes everything to keep my brain functioning. But once I’ve gotten to the point I can barely stand from starvation and exhaustion, I’m no longer any use as a heavy artillery weapon, nor an instrument of terror.
They have to feed me after a certain point, I’m more willing to commit suicide than they are to risk losing a Max unit.
But the Gesshru? They couldn’t last that long. One day until they start feeling the pangs of hunger and the lethargy of a body falling apart. On the three day mark they were usually dead, or at least close enough to it. I’ve never seen a Gesshru last longer than four. Without food this man would starve so much faster than I will, and by the time he’s a lifeless corpse there isn’t much reason for me to refuse the meat.
Maybe he has a family somewhere? I’d like it if there were some way to offer him final rights, or to honor his passing through whatever methods his particular culture dictates. Not many resources allowing me to do a great deal from within here, and if I don’t eat the body then I’m certain the soldiers outside won’t be any nicer.
Though knowing he used “Core” as an expletive I could guess that he followed Gashn religion in which case being eaten alive was tantamount to blocking them from the afterlife. Not something I learned during initial study, but a fact that became loudly apparent after my capture.
From the death of my fellow roommate, this cruel cycle repeats itself, for as long as they have prisoners to send in. I get a fresh mix of food, usually, and most often another prisoner to share my room. Always preferable when they bother with the nutriment paste, for when live Gesshru are the only things filling my bowel I don’t really have any options. And of course the conversations are that much more awkward.
With another sigh and a grumbling stomach, I pushed into the side of the food bowl and edged it toward the left wall. Now nothing was between myself and the prisoner. Still seated, I licked my hand to clean the paste off and made sure to keep pressure on my newly formed bite wound. I would have preferred to finish eating, but I needed to ration the remainder.
This subject wouldn’t last more than a day without a filling meal and the proper nutrients, so if I am able to save my meals for him then tomorrow I can offer a full day’s worth for him. And yet more the next day. And feed him more the day after that.
Eventually it will still run dry of course, and I don’t know how long exactly until the food becomes too spoiled, but this single meal could last him for much longer than a week if one were to properly stretch it out.
Right back to that familiar song and dance, trapped inside a room with a small man who hates me, and for the sake of my sanity I have to keep him alive as long as possible.
“J-just hold it together man, just hold it together.” He blubbered, glancing up at the feeding tube. “get into the tube. Climb to the storage device. Wait for workers to come refill it. Jump them and escape. This can work, I’m not going to die here. Not today. Not when so many people are counting on me.”
With a heavy heart and sinking depression, I nodded at this man’s conviction.
“If you have even the slightest chance, I’ll do everything I can to help. Don’t die on me, alright?”
Another in the long list of statements he’d ignore as the oppressive growls of a monster searching for its next meal.