Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Desert Motel

by Wayne Summers


The Everybody Inn was a simple wooden building painted white to reflect the harsh outback heat and skirted by wide verandahs which prevented most of the sun’s scorching rays from reaching the rooms. There were a total of ten guest rooms each modestly furnished with a queen-sized bed, a dresser, a wooden wardrobe and an en suite bathroom/toilet. Single folder beds were available at reception for anyone with children. Tasteless, flimsy blue and brown curtains hung at each window and matching worn blue and brown bedspreads covered each of the beds. The en suite bathrooms contained either brown towels or blue towels. The rooms themselves were painted pale blue and faded prints of Australian landscapes by Albert Namatjira in gaudy, ornately carved wooden frames hung on the walls.

The motel was situated on a lonely stretch of road near the border of Western Australia and South Australia. It seemed an unlikely site for a business which provided accommodation to weary travellers considering the great volume of traffic hurtling back and forth across the Nullarbor just a few miles further south on the Eyre Highway.

The surrounding grounds met the treeless wilderness of the Nullarbor Plain without any discernible borders. The entire landscape was barren and stony, supporting nothing more than low-growing, hardy bushes and some wild grass. A small, neglected eucalyptus tree struggling upwards towards the sun clung to life outside the window of the front office. The previous owners had planted it and then left it to the care of Mother Nature. Its sole function was seemingly to provide shade for a small colony of ants, whose nest was just centimetres from its thin and twisted trunk.

Simon Atkins, a thirty-six year old real-estate salesman, had been driving for eight hours straight. He was feeling tired. Five years ago he had been the recipient of a blood transfusion infected with HIV. Luck had not been on his side and now he had a constant reminder of his time in hospital. His wife, Susannah, a high-school English teacher with a mane of bushy red hair, had been dividing her time between keeping their six-year old daughter, Claire, entertained and reading the latest Jackie Collins paperback. As the sun headed for the horizon and the light slowly grew paler, Simon announced that it was time to look for a place to stay for the night.

As the sky turned from a purplish-orange haze into a charcoal-grey void, Susannah caught sight of a sign at the side of the road “The Everybody Inn - Budget accommodation and meals”. Simon saw it too and thanked his lucky stars that they wouldn’t have to spend a cramped night in their Holden sedan. Roughing it in the Australian outback was an appealing fantasy, but out in the real world the comfort of a firm mattress and the promise of a home-cooked meal over-shadowed any chance of him pursuing the spirit of adventure at that particular moment.

He turned off the main highway and headed up the un-surfaced road, a cloud of dust trailing them in the semi-darkness and in only a few short minutes they spotted the lights of the Everybody Inn. Claire was already asleep in the back seat and all Susannah could think about was a hot shower. Simon was just looking forward to getting out of the car.

He parked outside the front office, got out of the car and had a stretch, while Susannah carefully gathered her sleeping daughter up in her arms, knocking the rear door of the car shut with a thrust of her hip. Claire let out a little moan when the door slammed but did not wake up. She placed a small arm over her mother’s shoulder and snuggled into Susannah’s chest.

“Here, help me put this blanket around her,” Susannah whispered as she walked around the car to where Simon was waiting.

Nullarbor nights were cold and already the temperature had dropped to the point where jumpers and blankets were a necessity. Simon gently draped the blanket over Claire, but before he could move away Susannah thrust their sleeping daughter into his arms.

“You take her. She’s too heavy for me.”

Simon clicked his teeth and frowned at her in the dim light.

“Yes and I’ve been driving all day,” he snapped back, but took the sleeping bundle anyway.

They made their way to the front office, the silence between them colder than the night air. Through the tinted glass of the sliding door they could see the attendant sitting with his back to them reading a magazine. Susannah knocked lightly on the glass before they both entered; coming face to face with the man on duty as he slowly spun himself around in his swivel chair.

The mild irritation that Simon and Susannah had both been feeling soon melted away as they set eyes on the attendant. Simultaneously they turned to face each other, realising that they were both thinking exactly the same thing, that he was the oddest looking person they had ever laid eyes on. Even sitting in his swivel chair he was almost as tall as they were standing and when he stood up it seemed as if his head would smash through the ceiling. He must have been at least seven and a half-foot tall. And those eyes, those large black almond-shaped eyes, almost Asian yet strangely inhuman, were cold and emotionless. Their position on his face seemed awkwardly skewed, the downwards slant towards the centre of his face too dramatic to be natural.

When he opened his tiny mouth he spoke in a very calm, deliberate way, his thin, reedy voice seeming at odds with his immense frame. A deeper voice would have seemed more appropriate. Nor was there any trace of the broad outback Australian accent they had been expecting.

“A room for the night?” he asked.

“If we could please, er, Joe,” Simon answered noticing the name on the man’s chipped enamel badge.

Joe replied that he did have a room available and that it would be cash up front. Simon shrugged his shoulders and handed the man his money. It struck him as being a rather unusual way to run a business, but then nothing at the Everybody Inn seemed entirely normal. Besides, he was too tired to care. As long at the man took them to a room with a bed he would be happy.

Joe stepped out from behind the counter and instructed them to follow him. He moved gracefully for a man, like a ballet dancer, with perfect posture and steps that were long and steady. His willowy frame and spidery limbs seemed to float through the air as he went, giving him an ethereal quality that somewhat mesmerised Susannah.

“Here you are,” Joe announced as the small group came to a stop in front of Room 3.

“Thank you,” said Simon taking the keys from Joe, noticing at the same time how cold and clammy the attendant’s hands were.

“If you need anything…” Joe began, but trailed off before he’d completed his sentence.

Had he forgotten what he wanted to say? It was all very curious; too curious for either Simon or Susannah to contemplate in their current tired state. Joe looked past them into the darkness and then turned and walked back to the office.

Simon shook his head and ushered Susannah into the room. They looked around for a bed for Claire, but there wasn’t one.

“I’ll go and ask Joe,” Susannah groaned. “Guess we can’t expect too much out here in the sticks. It’s not as if we’re in the comfort of an aeroplane.”

She looked accusingly at Simon on her way to the door, but he was beyond caring.

“Can you just go and get something organised with Joe?” he snapped. “I’m tired and Claire isn’t getting any lighter.”

Susannah exhaled audibly as she walked over to the door and pulled it open. She gasped when she found Joe already standing there with a folder bed in one hand and a set of sheets and blankets cradled in the other arm.

“Joe!” she exclaimed.

“Thought you might need these,” he said.

Susannah took the bed and placed it just inside the door then gathered the bedding up in her arms. As Joe turned and walked back to the office, she thanked him. He didn’t turn around.

“Would it hurt you to smile?” she mumbled to herself as she shut the door.

She threw the bedding onto the queen-sized bed and opened out the small folder bed. After she’d made it up, Simon placed Claire onto the thin mattress and covered her with a fresh cotton sheet and two blankets.

Simon collapsed backwards onto the bed with a loud whoomp! which earned him another disapproving look from Susannah. He didn’t see it because his eyes were closed, but he could sense it coming at him like a torpedo from across the room. Then, as his mind began to wander as it does before sleep arrives, he began to wonder if it had been such a good idea to drive to Melbourne after all, especially if it meant they were going to be irritable and grumpy the whole trip.

Later, in the very early hours of the morning, Simon was woken up. He was groggy and disorientated, still tired from the long day he’d had, yet something had managed to rouse him from a deep sleep. He lifted his head off the pillow and through half-closed eyes looked up at the light filtering in through the thin fabric of the curtains. His head returned to the pillow for a few seconds while he gathered his thoughts, then he sat bolt upright when he realised that the bed next to him was empty. He leaned further across and saw that Claire’s folder bed was also empty.

He leapt to his feet and flew over to the window facing the road. He flung the curtains apart and saw that their car was still there along with three other cars that had been parked there when they arrived. He looked over his shoulder at the en suite bathroom and noticed that it was as dark and empty as the rest of the room. In a panic he grabbed the jacket he’d been wearing that day and pulled it on over his crumpled shirt as he ran out the door. He paused to look up and down the length of the verandah and noticed that the light in the office was still on. Simon felt a momentary sense of relief as he ran the few steps it took to get to there, but hope turned to disappointment when he found the sliding glass door locked and the office empty. He started banging on the glass.

“Joe! Joe!” he shouted.

But there was no answer. He looked at his watch. It was exactly 2.30 a.m. The other guests were sleeping, although it seemed strange that with all his banging and yelling he hadn’t managed to rouse one single person.

He ran around to the far side of the office, looking in both the front window and another window at the side. Then he noticed a small dwelling attached to the back of the office. The front door had a potted plant on either side of it and a wooden plaque with the words ‘Joe’s Place’ burnt into it hanging in the centre. The building was shrouded in darkness and Joe was no doubt asleep, but Simon was desperate. He had no choice other than to start pounding on the aluminium fly screen door with his fist in a bid to rouse Joe. Panic was washing over him in waves now. He was frantic. He began to call out Joe’s name while his mind tortured him with horrific images of all the things that could have happened to his wife and daughter.

He stopped knocking for a few seconds and put his ear against the door. He was puffing from his exertion, but even when he held his breath he couldn’t hear anything inside. There were no sounds of movement and no indication that anyone had heard him. If Joe was asleep, he was sleeping very soundly. Nevertheless, he continued hammering the door with is fist. He had to get some help from somewhere.

He looked over his shoulder, out into the inky desert night, but it was a black void. He turned and looked over his other shoulder and was greeted by the same expanse of endless night. Yet something caught his attention. In between knocks he thought he could hear a very low, very soft humming sound like the humming of a machine.

He stopped banging and listened again, straining his ears to locate the source of the mechanical hum. It seemed to be coming from somewhere out in the desert, just a couple of hundred metres away. He began to walk towards it when someone called his name. He spun around and saw what he thought was Joe standing at the side of the office, yet as he walked back towards the building he could see that it was a woman dressed in a long robe. In all likelihood it was Joe’s wife, or more probably a member of Joe’s family since she had the same spindly limbs and deliberate way of speaking.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

Simon approached her and didn’t know whether to smile or cry. He looked up at her as she stood, towering over him. She blinked her large eyes and attempted a smile, but her mouth was small and narrow and the effort made her look as though she were in pain.

“Thank God,” Simon exclaimed. “My wife and daughter are missing. You haven’t seen them, have you? You don’t know where they are? I can’t find them anywhere.”

“I’m sure they haven’t gone far,” the woman replied, her voice made melodious by irregular intonation. “I thought I saw them walking down the road. Maybe they went out for a walk. Your wife did remark that the little one was having trouble sleeping.”

Simon eyed her suspiciously.

“A midnight walk? Out here in the middle of nowhere? You gotta be kidding me,” he snapped.

The woman took an unsteady step backwards and slowly blinked her large black eyes. Her mouth formed a tiny ‘O’. It was as if Simon’s angry outburst had startled her, frightened her even. She quickly regained her composure, taking a deep breath and extending a willowy arm in Simon’s direction.

“Please, I must ask you to keep your voice down. I know you are upset but we have other guests to consider. Now, if you go back to your room and wait for your wife and daughter there, I’m sure you’ll find they’ll be back before you know it.”

Simon didn’t trust her.

“Where’s Joe?” he asked. “And who are you?”

“Joe is sleeping. He took a sleeping tablet, as he usually does, and can’t be roused. I am his sister, Leela. If there is anything you need, you can talk to me. I will be happy to do whatever I can. Joe will be back in the front office at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”

Simon sighed, exasperated, and returned to his room. He sat on the edge of the bed, rested his elbows on his knees and put his head between his hands. He had to think. Something very sinister was going on. Then he remembered the humming noise in the desert, the noise he had been walking towards when Leela called him. Had she only acknowledged his cries for help to stop him from investigating? Of course she had. He’d been making enough noise to wake the dead. It seemed strange that she had waited until that moment to make an appearance.

Creeping over to the window, he lifted one of the curtains ever so slightly and peeked through. Leela was nowhere to be seen. As quietly as he could, he opened the door and stepped outside. Taking great care, he hurried down the verandah to the far end, looked over his shoulder to make sure no-one was watching and then ran around to the back of the building.

He could still hear the low humming sound of an engine and moved silently towards it, keeping a watchful eye on the motel as he went. The humming became increasingly louder, yet even when he was sure he was right next to whatever it was that was making the sound, he couldn’t see anything apart from a large patch of darkness which seemed denser than the night around him. It was huge. Not only did it block out all the stars behind it, but he could feel the vibrations from it on his bare cheeks.

Against the starry sky Simon could just make out a convex edge at the top of the object, although that was all he could make out in the scarce moonlight. He approached the object cautiously, putting a hand out to feel his way around it. The whole surface of the object seemed to pulse with energy. It felt cold and hard, like metal, although it wasn’t metal, and incredibly smooth as though it had been polished.

He walked around the outside of the strange object looking for a way in. The whole time he could feel the immense power it gave off radiate through his body. The energy it produced must have been phenomenal. The girth of the thing was just as incredible. It had taken him several minutes to complete a single circuit of its oval circumference, despite not finding anything like a door or a ramp or any clue as to what it was or what it was for. He knew he had to find out.

The only thing he could do was wait. Whatever was inside would have to come out, or re-enter. Something had to happen. He wrapped his arms around his chest to keep himself warm and sat down in the dirt. Until he found his missing family he had all the time in the world to wait.

A combination of the warmth of the rising sun on his face and the early morning screeching of sulphur-crested cockatoos flying overhead woke Simon. His body ached all over from sleeping on the hard ground. Every muscle ached and his limbs were stiff and tender. In addition to those aches and pains, he noticed that something had bitten him on the arm during the night. He looked over to where the mysterious object had been and saw that it had gone. The humming had ceased and the Nullarbor morning and cloudless blue sky vista remained unbroken in every direction. He could have kicked himself for falling asleep.

With some difficulty and a groan he managed to climb to his feet and hobble back to the motel. In the short time it took him to reach the building he decided that he had to tell the other guests about what had happened. The other three cars were still there which meant that none of his fellow lodgers had yet departed. For that he was thankful. There was every possibility that one of them would be able to shed some light on the strange disappearance of his family. He could only hope.

He knocked softly on the door of the first room he came to. He didn’t want to disturb tired travellers nor did he want to attract the attention of either Joe or Leela. He was in enough trouble as it was without having them on his back. If anyone was awake inside they would hear his knocks and if they were asleep he would talk to them later. He knocked again, but there was no reply. He moved along the verandah to the next room and knocked on that door. More silence. The pattern was repeated at the remaining seven rooms which piqued his curiosity. Someone had to be awake at this time of the morning.

Simon tried the door of the room next to his and found it hadn’t been locked. He knew there had been people in there the previous night. He had fallen asleep to the strains of their love making permeating through the thin walls. He pulled the handle down and slowly pushed the door open. After his eyes had adjusted to the darkened room he saw that the beds were made and that the room was empty.

“Hello,” he called as loudly as he dared. “Anyone there?”

His calls were met with silence, just as his door-knocking had been.

He retraced his steps, trying all the other rooms and finding them all as equally empty. The beds had been made, if they had been slept in at all, and the rooms cleaned. In fact, he didn’t see any evidence of occupation, no cases or bags, no towels on the floor, no rubbish in the bin. Simon began to feel anxious.

He crept past the sliding glass door of the front office and saw that Joe was inside sitting with his back to him, reading a magazine. He continued to move stealthily around the building until he came to the side of the office where there was a small restaurant. He looked in through one of the windows half-expecting it to be full of hungry travellers eating a cooked breakfast, but not only weren’t there any diners, but there wasn’t any evidence there had been any either. Apart from a small collection of condiments on each table, they were empty. There were no dirty plates, no splashes of spilt coffee and no crumpled paper napkins. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled and he shuddered. Someone had just walked over his grave.

Simon went back to his room, locked the door and lay down on the bed. He didn’t want to call the police yet because it would take them at least an hour or so to get there and he wanted to make any decisions that needed to be made when he was thinking more clearly. There was a lot to be considered. He stared up at the ceiling and tried to think of a plan, a way to find out what had happened to Susannah and Claire, but his exhausted body needed sleep, though he would not let it. He would spend the rest of the day watching the office. Watching Joe.

As the sun began to retreat for yet another day, there was a knock at the door. Simon was taking a shower to try and keep himself awake, but he turned it off and wrapped a towel around his dripping body. Whoever it was on the other side was trying the handle, lifting it up and down, trying to get in. For a moment his heart skipped a beat at the possibility that it might be Susannah, but it wasn’t. It was Joe and Simon could hardly look him in the eye.

“Sorry to disturb you,” Joe said, “but if you want like to stay another night I’m going to have to ask you to pay up front.”

Simon had imagined for a moment that Joe was there to give him some good news or at least offer him some words of support, yet Joe’s face was an expressionless mask. He held his hand out and said no more. Simon reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. He removed sixty dollars and thrust the notes into Joe’s hand.

“There,” he snapped, taking offence at Joe’s indifference. “I’d also like something to eat if that’s not too much trouble.”

“Certainly,” Joe replied. “I’ll bring you something immediately. That’ll be another ten dollars.”

Simon thrust another ten dollars into his hand.

“By the way, my wife and daughter are still missing! You might want to look into that sometime if it’s not too much trouble!” he barked as Joe moved down the verandah.

Joe cocked his head slightly to one side and paused for a moment then, without replying, he continued back to the office. Never mind, thought Simon, he had made his point and Lanky Joe now knew that he was onto him.

Simon closed the door to his room and waited for his dinner to be delivered. When it arrived he was pleased to see that it was roast chicken and vegetables. He was starving. He hadn’t had anything to eat since the previous night, so he devoured the meal with relish, sucking the gravy and chicken juice off his fingers afterwards. Some apple pie and cream for dessert would have gone down a treat, but he didn’t want push his luck.

When he’d finished, he put the tray containing his empty plate and dirty cutlery outside the room. As he did so, he noticed through the twilight that his was the only car left in the car park. It appeared that apart from Joe and Leela he was now on his own. He would have to be extremely careful from that point on if he wanted to find his wife and child and get away safely. They had taken care of at least eight people the night before and tonight they would be coming after him. It was inevitable. He was a loose end.

The sun finally dragged the final remnants of twilight over the horizon leaving total darkness in its wake, although only for a moment. The grounds of the Everybody Inn were soon flooded with electric light, creating a circle of illumination which surrounded the motel like a protective barrier. Simon used the small window of opportunity to make his way from his room to a small shrub at the back of the building. This time he was prepared for the approaching cold night. He had a thick jacket and a torch. Tonight was going to be the night he got to the bottom of things and once he had, he and his family would leave this godforsaken place forever. He looked at his watch. 7.15 p.m. It was early. There was still a whole night ahead of him.

About an hour later Simon heard a faint humming sound coming from above him in the pitch blackness. He shone his torch up into the night sky, the narrow beam of light reflecting off something highly polished; something indistinguishable from the dark night which enveloped it. As the object got closer to the ground its engines blew the sand directly beneath it into the air, covering Simon. He coughed, bringing one hand up to protect his eyes and using the other to cover his mouth and nose. The sound of the engines grew to a roar and he could hear the sound of hydraulics, possibly the landing gear, being lowered. The ground was rocked as the full weight of the craft settled on its surface, then the roar faded to a hum again, constant and monotonous.

A door right next to him began to open downwards. Just before it touched the ground he saw that it had large step-like grooves in it. In the weak light coming from inside the ship, he saw two figures come to the top of the ramp and stand there surveying the darkness before them. One of them was Leela. She was closest to him and he caught a glimpse of her face as she looked briefly in his direction. The other figure was just a dark shape by her side, unrecognisable, although he was just as tall and gangly as Leela was. They wafted slowly down the ramp and when they reached the bottom, they paused once again, this time to adjust something they were wearing on their belts. They appeared to be acclimatising, taking deep breaths while continuing to adjust the device.

The minute Leela and the other alien began to move away from the spacecraft Simon began to move towards it. He managed to make it to the ramp just as it began to rise into the air. Leela smiled to herself. She had seen him there in the bushes all along. Her eyes were made for the night. He may have made it onto the ship, but there was no way he was getting off it.

Simon was overawed by the interior of the ship. The walls appeared to be living tissue. In some areas they were so thin that he could see vein-like tubules spreading like tiny rivers throughout it. It also produced its own light. It wasn’t a bright light. It was dim and barely enough to see that the floor he was walking on was not living, or at least it didn’t appear to be, and was made of a harder material with millions of tiny, pinhead-sized nodes on it which gripped the bottom of his shoes. As he explored his new surroundings further he became aware of a strange smell, something botanic like freshly crushed grass, a sweet smell that reminded him of his childhood. He noticed that the air was thin too. It wasn’t long before he began to feel light-headed and had to find a quiet corner where he could rest and get his breath back.

The whole ship pulsed with life, the dull throb of its heartbeat soon fading into nothingness as Simon’s ears became accustomed to it. He made his way deeper into the ship ever aware that he could be found and captured at any moment. So far he had been lucky enough to avoid contact with any of the aliens, although he had heard them and the high pitched squeaks and whistles they communicated with echoing like ghosts along the dark and narrow corridors. He had also seen them moving behind the thin membranous walls, which also meant that they were probably aware of him. Although it was also possible they weren’t. The only reason he could see them was because the interior of the ship was better lit than the shadowy outer passageway he was using. He could only hope he was right.

Towards the centre of the ship he came upon a circular room. He went up to the wall and strained his eyes to see what lay on the other side. The walls were semi-transparent but they still obscured any clear view of what was inside. He thought he could see more dark shapes inside, not aliens though because they were too short and they were motionless.

Moving as fast as he dared he skirted the large room looking for a way in, but if there was a door it was hidden. He put his hands up onto the wall, moving his palms over the surface to feel for any change in texture which might indicate a secret button or trigger which would give him access to the room and whatever it was that waited for him inside. Ever watchful of the long and labyrinthine corridors around him, he worked his way around the outside wall of the room once more.

Finally he came across a narrow slit in the wall that he had somehow missed the first time around; a place where one side of the wall over-lapped the other slightly, providing a seal which proved, in the beginning, to be difficult to open. Using all the strength he could muster Simon tried to pull one side away from the other just enough for him to slip through. His knuckles turned white and his face a deep red colour as he strained every muscle in his body to separate the two flaps of the wall. Eventually he ran out of breath and had to stop. He felt dizzy. The combination of thin air and over-exertion had momentarily taken their toll. He bent down and put his head between his legs. He felt the blood rush into his brain, refreshing him and replenishing its supply of oxygen. After a minute or so he felt ready to tackle the door again. This time he managed to get his fingers into the slit just enough to get a decent grip. Then, after taking several deep breaths, he pulled. He pulled as if his life depended on it, believing that his wife and child were inside, trapped and waiting for him to rescue them. And then he felt the wall weaken beneath his fingers. He took another quick, deep breath and re-exerted himself managing to peel the two sides of the wall apart just enough for him to squeeze through.

The room on the other side was cavernous and filled with hundreds of tubular cells about a metre in diameter, and made of the same fleshy material as the walls, only more transparent. Approaching the cylinders cautiously he saw to his horror that the dark shadows he had seen from the other side of the wall belonged to people, hundreds of them, in temporary stasis.

Simon wiped his brow. It was dripping with sweat due to the humidity in the room. Steam rose from small ducts in the surface of the floor, keeping the air in the room warm and moist. He looked around him in awe at the accumulated collection of human bodies these creatures had amassed. All around him, in every direction, there was nothing but fleshy cylinders of people, all different heights and weights, even children. It was then he knew for certain that somewhere amongst them was his family.

Closer inspection revealed that the captives were being kept alive by a combination of three thin tubes which hung down from the ceiling above. All three tubes were connected to a small flesh-coloured mask which each wore on the lower half of their face. The two thinnest tubes entered the mask just below the nose and, Simon assumed, intruded into the nostrils, carrying oxygen from outside the ship. The third and thicker tube appeared to be connected to the mouth. There was no clue as to the purpose of this tube, although it was either to aid in breathing or in supplying the bodies with sustenance, for while their eyes were closed, everyone appeared to still be alive; still breathing.

He dashed from cylinder to cylinder, wiping away just enough condensation from each one to look upon the face imprisoned within. Adrenalin pulsed through his veins, pushing him onwards, faster, keeping him attentive to his surroundings. If the aliens caught him, he’d end up in a cylindrical cell of his own and be of no use to anyone.

Time seemed to crawl. Simon managed a glance at his watch and noticed it had stopped. Urgency filled him. He had to go even faster. Like a man possessed he propelled himself through row after row of the fleshy cells hoping that the next cylinder he came to would contain the faces of those he loved so much.

He had no idea of how much time he had already been on board, nor did he have any idea of how much time he had before he was caught or before the ship took off again, as he knew it would. He was exhausted from the heat and the lack of oxygen in the room. Soon he became aware of a sound and realised it was the sound of crying. He was crying. Tears streamed down his sweaty cheeks as the fear that he might never see Susannah or Claire again occurred to him and that all his efforts may still yet be in vain; the happy ending he was hoping for may never eventuate.

But that kind of thinking wasn’t going to get him anywhere. He shook his head and wiped the tears from his face. He inhaled the wet, warm air and a determined look settled on his face. He turned the corner to begin searching yet another row of cylinders when he glimpsed the figure of a child. His heart skipped a beat. He ran over to it and swept away the condensation that had gathered on the outside of the tube. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was Claire! He began laughing and more tears flowed. He checked the cylinder to her left and found Susannah standing inside, eyes closed and looking as if she were peacefully sleeping.

He searched his pockets for something to cut through the membrane with and found his car keys. He singled one out and gripped it firmly. He pushed it into the membrane and punctured it. Adopting a sawing motion, he then sliced through the flesh, severing several of the veins as he did so. They immediately began leaking a clear, sticky fluid, some of which ran down onto his hands. He flicked it off and strings of the glue-like substance splattered all over the neighbouring cylinder.

He continued cutting until he had created a tear large enough to lean in through. Placing one arm around his wife to support her, he managed to easily remove the mask from her face, pulling the tubes out of her mouth and nostrils. He left the mask swinging on its tubes and began to gently shake his wife.

“Susannah,” he whispered. “Susannah!”

Slowly her eyes flickered beneath her eyelids and she began to cough. He guessed her throat would be dry but he had nothing for her to drink. He laid her against a neighbouring cylinder and began to collect handfuls of condensation for her to sip.

“Just lie there for a minute and rest,” he said, his voice full of relief. “I’ll get Claire and then we’ll try and get out of here.”

Susannah struggled to say something but she was hoarse and instead choked weakly.

“Don’t speak, honey,” he said, kissing her gently on the lips.

Taking the key he punctured the flesh of the second cylinder and removed the mask from his daughter’s face. Like her mother, as she opened her eyes and became conscious, she began to cough uncontrollably. Simon placed her on the floor of the ship beside her mother and collected some condensation for her to drink. Susannah helped as well, taking care of her daughter first before licking up a couple of mouthfuls herself.

“We have to get out of here,” Simon whispered.

Susannah managed to struggle to a standing position finding it more difficult than she had anticipated. Simon, meanwhile, gathered Claire up in his arms. As they stepped forward Simon noticed some movement on the other side of the cylinders. He thrust Claire into Susannah’s arms and motioned for them to get down. Susannah lowered herself to the floor, cradling Claire and comforting her with a tight embrace, knowing that any sound from her would alert whatever it was in the next aisle to their presence. She could feel her heart racing, pounding within her chest, the sound of it filling her ears. Her entire body tensed up, every muscle was tight, every cell flooded with adrenalin, yet all she could do was wait and pray.

Simon dropped to the floor, hardly daring to breathe as he lay hidden in the meagre scraps of shadow between two cylinders. Slowly he dared to put one arm in front of the other to pull himself along the floor through the curling, churning sea of steam until he was able to stick his head through a space between two of the cylinders in the next aisle. He could just make out the shapes of two aliens; their willowy bodies surreal in the half-light of the steamy room. They conversed, exchanging squeaks and high pitched squeals as one directed the other to a vacant cylinder.

As they moved closer to where Simon lay, he saw for the first time their true image. Both creatures were tall and extremely slim. He knew that already. Their great watermelon-shaped heads rested on slim necks that didn’t look up to the job of supporting such a mass. Their faces took up only a small area at the front of the head. Their large black eyes had epicanthic folds and when they blinked their eyelids closed slowly and almost deliberately. They had no noses, merely two small nostrils, and small mouths without lips, just slits in their grey skin.

One of them had a human male, tethered and semi-conscious, in his arms. The man was naked. He was trying to say something, to protest, but his words were slurred and incomprehensible. Quite obviously he had been drugged.

The second alien stretched a long spidery arm up above its head and pulled down a mask from a position out of Simon’s view. The man struggled as the alien fed a tube down each of his nostrils and then as the third larger tube was forced down his throat. The alien holding the man pressed something on the side of the mask and the man went limp, blacking out completely.

The second alien looked as though he were searching for something on the ceiling. He slid his hands along the surface until he found a small ring-like protrusion in the thick fleshy material. His long, bean-like fingers picked at it, freeing it from where it had been growing in the soft tissue and eventually it came loose. As the other alien positioned the man beneath it, the alien gently pulled it down over the unconscious human; its crumpled and creased texture becoming smooth and taut as the flesh of the cylinder grew into the flesh of the floor. The aliens then looked around the room and promptly left, talking to each other as they climbed easily through the hidden doorway.

Simon waited until he was sure the aliens had gone and then crawled backwards through the cylinders and over to his wife, who had moved to a more secluded position between some cylinders nearer the middle of the room. He told her what he had seen and it was then that Susannah told him what she had gleaned from her time aboard the alien spacecraft.

The aliens were storing them for food.

What she couldn’t have known was that they were on board a transportation ship and that when it had been filled, it, along with many others from all over the blue planet, would return to the mother ship, which was cloaked and waiting on the far side of the moon. By that time, thousands of human beings would have been collected. Then, upon boarding the mother ship they would remain stored on the transportation ships to be kept alive until the mother ship reached its home planet, many light years from Earth. Most of those collected would then be divided up amongst the population, liquefied and then drunk; a healthy, nutritious and renewable food source. Others, not so fortunate to die early, would be kept alive long enough to reproduce in special holding pens; a nightmarish existence for those who could survive it.

Slowly they made their way down the aisle to the end of the row. As they neared the end Susannah looked at the shredded flesh of the cylinder that had held her prisoner and noticed that it had begun to decompose. She tapped Simon on the shoulder and pointed. He looked at the dying tissue and noticed that it was spreading quite rapidly, only just beginning to infect the neighbouring cylinders.

“We have to try and save the others,” Susannah whispered.

“We can’t,” Simon replied. “We haven’t got time.”

Susannah looked at the cylinders on either side of her, at the silent, still bodies inside each one and refused to go one step further.

“We have to,” she insisted. “Give me the keys.”

Simon turned to face his wife. He had known her long enough to realise when she had made up her mind. He frowned and took the keys out of his pocket.

“Well I suppose we have more of a chance the more of us there are.”

Susannah nodded victoriously and then smiled at her husband as he removed two keys from his key-ring. He gave one to Susannah and one to Claire.

“You two cut open the cylinders and I’ll get them off those tubes and revived.”

Claire suddenly sparked up; her face one big, brilliant smile. She felt enormously honoured at being permitted to help the ‘grown ups’, although the flesh of the cylinders was living and not easy for her to cut into. She could only average one cylinder for every four her mother was able to hack into.

As the first prisoners were released, Susannah took time out from slitting open the cylinders to help Simon revive them, giving them whatever water she could gather in the palm of her hand and helping them to their feet so that they could help others. As more and more were revived, the faster the rescue mission went. Bewildered and light-headed every new release contributed what they were able to, realising how important it was to free as many of the hundreds trapped as they possibly could.

As they worked they became aware of a foul stench filling the room. It wasn’t immediately obvious where the smell was coming from. Some thought it might have been some kind of spray the aliens were using to subdue them and that at any minute they would all fall unconsciously to the ground. Luckily, before any hint of hysteria hit the small group of exhausted workers, it was discovered that the smell was being produced by the rotting tissue of the torn cylinders. Simon was able to supply his wife and daughter with cloth from his shirt to wrap around their noses, but as everyone else was naked they had to tolerate the fetid air and work as best they could.

Finally, after several minutes and several dozen rescues, the stench became too overpowering. Sounds of coughing filled the room and two people passed out. The time had come for them to make their escape. They would have to return later for the remaining prisoners if they could. Simon navigated his way back to the point he had entered the room, the others following closely behind him in a long, snaking line. He got a couple of the men to help him with the door and in seconds they had separated the two halves of fleshy wall. One of the men stuck his head nervously through the opening to check that the coast was clear and was immediately confronted by the figure of an alien towering over him. The alien leaned over, swooping down from where he had been standing and growled at the man, its mouth stretching open to reveal two red, fleshy gums, toothless but nonetheless frightening. The man yelled and fell backwards into the gathered bodies waiting on the other side.

The alien turned and disappeared around a corner, hurrying to alert the others. Simon waited a minute or so then poked his head through the gap and seeing that the alien had gone began ushering people through the hole.

He turned to the men helping him.

“You stay here and get these people out. I’ll lead them to the door and try to figure out a way of getting out of here before the bloody thing takes off.”

The men nodded.

Taking Susannah and Claire’s hands he led them as fast as he could through the dimly lit corridors back towards the door of the craft. The pulsing sound he had heard on the way in was growing louder.

“I think they’re about to take off,” he told the others. “We have to go faster.”

He broke into a jog, gathering Claire up in his arms so he could go faster. The pulsing throbbed in their ears, growing louder and louder. Some of the women and children began to cry, tears flying off their cheeks as they ran towards the entrance. An elderly man tripped and fell down hard against the floor, those behind trampled him as he tried in vain to get back up onto his feet. As more and more panicked people poured out of the room of cylinders, the less chance he had of recovering. Then as the last of the freed prisoners escaped, the life drained slowly out of his frail, naked body.

Finally, Simon saw what he thought he had already passed - the door through which they would escape, and it was either opening or closing. Moonbeams filtered in through the space around the door. Finding the strength from somewhere deep inside his exhausted body, Simon virtually threw Claire into Susannah’s arms and sprinted towards the door. He launched himself at it, hitting it hard with his shoulder and causing it to stop for a second before the gap between his world and the hellish world of the alien spaceship continued to narrow.

“Help me!” he screamed at the approaching crowd. “Everybody!”

People began to hurl themselves at the door, jolting it, but not stopping its progress. Simon had to think and he had to think quickly. Then he had an idea. He gathered everyone who had reached the entrance and grouped them together behind the door. Then on the count of three they launched themselves like a human battering ram at the door. Again and again they made their assault, jolting it and finally stopping its progress.

Simon asked everyone to turn and face the other direction. Recent arrivals were put at the front. Once more they launched themselves en masse at the door, battering it, loosening the mechanism that was holding it upright.

“They’re coming!” screamed a teenage girl at the back of the assembled crowd. “Oh my God I can hear them coming!”

The crowd surged towards the door knocking it, pushing it until it dropped open a fraction more.

“Keep going!” someone yelled.

Bit by bit they managed to knock the door open enough for the first few people to squeeze through, although it wasn’t easy. The gap was only big enough for people to slip through one at a time on each side. Several people grazed the skin on their arms and legs as they escaped, dropping through the air to the ground two metres below.

Those inside were growing more and more anxious, realising that time was running out and fearing that they could be forever trapped inside the living bowels of the alien spaceship. Those already on the outside got to their feet, dusted themselves off and shouted encouragement to the people still on board. Screaming and crying children were thrown down to outstretched arms.

The pulsing began to grow more rapid and more irregular. Those outside saw jets of steam shooting out from the base of the ship.

“Hurry! Get out!” they screamed. “Get out!”

Their screams reached the ears of those inside. At the same time the first aliens turned the corner and came across the frightened, desperate crowd of humans escaping through a small gap in their door.

Soon the sound of screaming inside the craft became deafening, easily blocking out the throbbing of the engines as they were being fired up for take off. The aliens covered the small holes in the side of their heads, recoiling in agony. Simon, who remained on board to help the others, could see them grimacing in pain as the screams and shouts of the gathered crowd fractured their frail eardrums. Simon joined in, pushing people out through the narrow gap in the door and shouting for all he was worth. Those few, who weren’t already making a noise, noticed the effect of the screaming on their alien abductors and quickly joined in.

The people who had made it out and were waiting below stood bewildered in the early morning light with looks of horror on their faces. They imagined all kinds of horrific scenarios as the screaming grew louder and louder.

For the aliens the deafening screams and shouts were too much. They turned and fled back into the deteriorating bowels of the spaceship. The rot from the torn cylinders was spreading throughout the ship. Since the interior had been grown from living tissue everything was connected. The whole ship was weakening. Even the door had dropped open a few centimetres as the material holding it in place slowly turned brown and disintegrated.

The roaring of the ship preparing for take off caused a mass panic. People climbed over each other, spilling out of the spaceship and falling like autumn leaves to the ground. Several people fractured and broke bones as they hit the hard ground, landing awkwardly as they tried to avoid landing on each other; yet they considered it better to have a few broken bones than to never again see the light of an Earth day.

The ship began to lift off the ground. More and more people scrambled through the exit. Those on the ground grew frantic. There was still a trickle of people running from the room of cylinders, those who had managed to free themselves from their masks and find their way to the side of the ship where only twenty or so people remained. Simon was one of those. He had been working on automatic pilot, freeing as many people as he could regardless of the fact his body was craving sleep. But the time had come for him to think about his own family and escape to the ground below where they were waiting for him. He positioned himself between the remaining people and the door and forced himself through the narrow gap. The ship was now about five metres from the ground, but it was now or never. He jumped and, remembering the training he had received at a sky diving course he had done, landed on bent legs, tumbling and rolling to a stop by a group of naked, but grateful, strangers.

He climbed to his feet just in time to see the ship accelerate into the clouds above, shooting across the sky with people still falling out of the half open door before disappearing altogether. Seconds later, as tens of dozens of teary eyes looked skyward; there was a giant explosion as the ship hit the ozone layer. There were a couple of cheers, but aside from those, there was only silence and the sound of crying. No-one had the strength to do anything more. For some even that was too taxing.

THE END


© 2008 Wayne Summers

Bio: Wayne Summers currently has stories in Issue 23 of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction (for which he designed the cover), Morpheus Tales, Cemetery Moon, Mirror Dance, Grim Graffiti, SNM Horror Magazine, eight stories on MicroHorror and another on Whispering Spirits. He also has stories about to be published in Night To Dawn. Choice Cuts, a mystery/horror novella by Mr. Summers, appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 Aphelion.

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