Chapter Seven: The Vivarium
Gil Sanders was not the kind of man who had to shave every day in order to look presentable. He was also not the kind of man who could ever look presentable if he allowed himself to grow anything that could be defined as a beard. Gil’s facial hair was just sporadic enough that, instead of growing into a thick beard, it would resemble the jowls of a stray dog if not taken care of soon enough. So he’d gotten pretty good at determining how many days it’d been since his last shave by simply touching his face. It took him roughly two days to get his five o’clock shadow, and after another two, Gil would look homeless. Thus, the third night, when his facial hair would transition from sandpaper to fuzz, was the sweet spot.
Stroking his face now, he guessed it must have been seven days since his hosts brought him aboard. He’d never before grown his facial hair out for seven days, but he supposed he’d likely be refused service at a fancy restaurant with a face like the one he wore now.
This also marked somewhere around the fifth day Gil had spent locked in the circular chamber that was his holding cell—ever since Korben’s unexpected dismemberment, Gil hadn’t stepped foot out of the center room. That meant somewhere around five days without entering the exam room, five days without sneaking a sponge bath, and five days of completely raw mystery meat.
Until the morning of the fifth prison day, Gil hadn’t really considered trying to sneak out of the chamber again—the thought didn’t have enough time to gestate into anything more than a passing whim, because he’d always lift up his head to look around and see Korben. The giant had planted itself on what looked like a backless drum throne just behind the window of the center chamber closest to the kitchen, and stared at Gil as if it were a prison guard. It had a thick plate of dried and cracked clay on its back. To Gil’s knowledge, Korben had not abandoned its post for even a moment until the start of the fifth waking period, which Gil had come to count as a span of time where the lights in the center room were turned on.
By the fifth waking period after the incident, Korben’s lost arm had grown back to the elbow. The terminating point looked like a gnarled mass of raw biscuit dough, but it was infinitely less horrible to behold than the day after it had been severed.
When Gil woke up for the first time after being beaten unconscious with Korben’s severed arm, he hadn’t noticed right away that he was being watched. The first thing he did was touch his face and, that being the third waking period, he confirmed for himself the periods were comparable to twenty-four-hour days—it was time to shave. He was also acutely distressed to find several shards of the shattered plate embedded in his cheeks and forehead.
Wincing, he delicately pinched each piece, one by one, and tugged them out of his skin. They were incredibly small, not much bigger in thickness or length than the pin of a thumb tack, but they stuck in his skin like barbs and opened fresh, stinging wounds. Even in his pain, he produced a smile—he’d grown accustomed to tempered glass, which would safely shatter into harmless bits of smooth gravel if it broke. There were also things like his garage door, which would all but mutter, “pardon me,” and retreat back to the ceiling if it so much as bonked him on the head.
In contrast, provided the plate was a good representative, the sliding glass panes surrounding him could very well explode into a pile of needles if one of them should ever break. And forget about changing the door’s mind if it’d had a notion to slide shut—it cut clear through Korben’s arm like it was made of butter. Then again, if appendages could be lost without any sign of pain or even stress, he supposed safety wouldn’t be such a big concern on Earth either.
It was when Gil’s stomach rumbled that he looked up for the first time and spotted Korben. It sat on its stool with knees spread apart and right arm dangling between them. At this early point in time, its newly-severed arm still ended just below the shoulder, and didn’t so much scab over as much as it just looked like sundried meat. The color, muted green interwoven with pale grey strands, was revolting to look at. The sight didn’t ruin Gil’s appetite, however. He’d gotten used to feeling hungry since boarding the ship, having only eaten a cumulative couple of fillets in as many days, but now he was ravenous.
Slowly making his way to his feet, Gil peed near the center of the room and watched it flow to the growing ecosystem he had pooling in the center. The disc above it perpetually warmed the mess like a heat lamp, keeping the stench strong and almost as awful as the aliens’ own particular brand. He then walked over to the window where Korben stood watch. The alien’s eyes rose to greet him, but it otherwise didn’t move.
“Hey,” Gil said flatly, eyelids half shut. “Sorry about your arm.” He weakly gestured with his eyes to Korben’s wound. “No hard feelings, right? Hey, can you slip me another plate of that mystery meat?”
There was no response, of course, verbal or otherwise.
“Come on, man, I gotta eat. I need something to drink too.” Gil mimed inserting something into his mouth and then chewed.
But again, there was no response.
Looking closely at Korben, Gil was suddenly overcome with an inexplicable sense of shame. Like a bad dog—like a clumsy mutt brought inside that proceeded to piss on the carpet and chew everything up. Gil had inadvertently slapped that tall and skinny thing in the eye, was responsible for it getting its arm cut off, and had otherwise done nothing else but eat their food and urinate all over the floor. The feeling that Korben wanted to have him put down—to bring him out back and pump a few rounds into his head like he was some sort of rabid animal—played a large part in the imagery.
After almost a minute of continued staring, Gil’s exhausted eyes went out of focus and he saw his own reflection in the window. His attention shifted to his eyes, which were surrounded with bruises—he had two black eyes. In the partial transparency of the window’s reflection, it looked almost like he had no eyes at all—just two large and dark voids. He looked like one of them, and he could only giggle at the sight of himself.
“Hey look,” he said in a deadpan tone, pointing to his black eyes with both hands, “I look just like you now. We’re basically twins… right? You’re not gonna let your brother starve to death, are you?”
After more silence, he put a hand on his stomach to really drive the point home. Even if they couldn’t talk to each other, Gil knew Korben understood—it had given Gil its first meal aboard the ship with far fewer hints. Korben briefly glanced down at the gesture, and then returned its gaze to its previous position.
Gil’s smile faltered, and after a moment, he scowled. “Look, I know what you guys are trying to do here. You think I’m stupid, but I’m pretty sure I got it figured out. You brought your Mayflower over here and we gave you some kinda Earth cold or something, and now you’re trying to concoct a remedy.” He tittered. “Well, if you don’t give me something to eat, I’m gonna starve and you’re all gonna look like dried-up pieces of old white dog shit until you drop dead.” With only more silence as a response, Gil lost his temper. He shouted, “I NEED SOME FOOD!” and with every word, he slammed his open palms against the glass for effect. But when Korben finally stood up to challenge him, Gil caught another glimpse of the detail inside the thing’s eyes and lost his nerve in an instant. It was just too terrible to look at.
He slowly backed up with his hands raised chest high in surrender, and returned to the center of the room. Korben took its seat again, and after a few moments of aimless pacing, Gil lay down with his back against the warm disc and fell asleep.
When he awoke again, roused by hunger, the lights were off. His hands were in front of his face and, as secretively as he could, he spread his fingers to look at the window across the room. From this vantage point, he could only see Korben’s feet, but that was enough for him—he forced his eyes shut and eventually drifted back to sleep.
On the fourth waking period, Gil awoke with a start at the sound of something skidding along the floor towards his face. He lurched backwards instinctively, stopping inches away from the spinning disc behind him, and saw that his attacker was a dinner plate—he’d finally been granted a small meal. He never thought he’d be so happy to see a dish of raw meat.
Looking up, he saw Roger in the open doorway setting down a glass of water. It had to step around Korben, who had awkwardly held its ground as Roger maneuvered through the corridor and into the center room. With the glass of water safely on the floor, Roger slipped back though the threshold, slid the window shut, and disappeared.
Gil rose to his feet, walked to the window, snatched up the water, and looked down at the floor as he returned to his pathetic campfire. He greedily ate most of his meal by the handful, and then gulped his water down. With just a single sip remaining, he poured it into his palm and then scrubbed his hands together in an effort to dilute the sticky meat juices. Only a few small cubes of meat remained on the plate.
Far from sated, but no longer starving, Gil sat cross-legged on the ground with his mouth hanging open, and stared blankly at the spinning disc in the center of the room. He’d gotten so used to its perpetual hum he could hardly hear it. What is that thing? he wondered. The hatch underneath it was almost certainly how he came aboard, but because it was just a hole, it couldn’t have been what pulled him upwards. So that meant either the spinning disc or the avant-garde chandelier on the ceiling had to be the culprit.
Gil lazily tossed one of his remaining meat cubes onto the spinning disc like an old man feeding bread to ducks at a park. He’d been curious since the day he arrived what would happen if he were to touch it, and raw meat would be an adequate test subject in the place of his finger. He also suddenly had a hope the disc would be hot enough to cook the meat. It would spell a grateful end for his raw meals. But when the cube made contact with the disc, it shot right back and flicked him square in the forehead.
The impact made Gil’s eyes twitch involuntarily. It took him a moment to understand what had happened. Mouth still hanging open, brow furrowed, he looked down into his lap and saw the tiny meat cube between his legs. He rubbed his forehead—it hurt more than he thought it would—then picked the cube up and saw a corner had turned grey, which meant the disc was definitely hot enough to sear. But the thing was spinning so fast that using it as a frying pan was out of the question.
Okay, he thought, so it’s literally just a hot, spinning disc. So what’s powering it? Is it self-powered? Perhaps it’s powering the ship. Gil didn’t know. The disc might have been a solid piece of some unknown material, or stuffed full of foreign electronics. He shrugged.
Looking up, the chandelier caught his attention again. Like its counterpart hovering above the floor, it had to have a function but Gil didn’t have the foggiest idea what it could be. He’d seen the disc float high into the air once before, and it was possible the chandelier was responsible for doing that. Its job might be to hold the disc like a… he pursed his lips for a moment, then snapped his fingers suddenly and said aloud, “containment field… or something.” Then again, it was also possible it was a simple decoration—he just didn’t know.
He took the same meat cube and chucked it high in the air. It hit one of the stalactites, dropped straight down, struck the disc, and flicked Gil on the forehead once again. He winced, then sighed. He glanced at Korben, who of course remained in its seat and stared.
“You gonna watch me twenty-four-seven?” he asked, knowing he’d get no response. And Korben did sit there and stare, as it would continue to do for the following two days. Gil assumed Korben was keeping watch for two reasons. First, Korben wanted to make sure Gil didn’t sneak out of the center room again. Second, and more importantly, Gil had a feeling Korben didn’t know how he got out of the center room, and was hoping he would try it again.
Both of these assumptions were correct—Korben didn’t know how Gil managed to use their interface and skitter through the ship while they slept, and it was hoping to catch him in the act of another attempt. But there was also another reason, one which Gil hadn’t considered: Korben was passing the time. Without any orders, it simply sat and stared at their captive, biding its time until the one in charge returned to the ship. And when their mission was complete—if they could in fact complete it—Korben had decided Gil was going to die whether the rest of the crew liked it or not. Until then, the giant would patiently wait and study its eventual victim.
After hours of aimlessly pacing around the room, punctuated by the occasional break to pee towards the dip in the center, the lights went dim. Gil lay down again and went to sleep.
He was startled from sleep again on the fifth day, when the humming of the orange disc suddenly intensified. His eyes darted to the center of the room where they grew wide with panic, and then a second later he was on his feet and sprinting to a window where Jeltz stood fiddling with something obscured by the adjacent panel. He pounded his fists against the sliding glass door and screamed rapid-fire questions at the poker-faced alien, namely, why was the disc rising? Were they going to blow him out into space? Why now?
Gil received no answers, of course, but he didn’t have to wait long for a satisfactory response. As soon as the disc reached a height of about eight feet, the window behind Gil slid open. Roger awkwardly maneuvered around the stoic Korben and entered the center room. It was holding a device that looked… nothing like a vacuum cleaner, yet that’s apparently what it was—Roger was here to clean up the area Gil had been using as a toilet.
Gil felt like all three of the aliens frowned slightly during this process. They had seen—or really, watched—him urinate many times, but no one aboard the ship save for Gil knew quite what to make of his feces. Gil had only done it the first night after eating the raw mystery meat, and mixed with the other fluids, the lava lamp contents looked a little unfamiliar even to him. And again, the otherworldly heat lamp didn’t do the sludge any favors.
Their subtle expressions of confusion and disgust made Gil feel slightly embarrassed. He knew it smelled unpleasant, but the standard stench on these bozos was so terrible that his leavings should have hit them like potpourri. “What are you doing that for? Why not just blow it out?” he asked Roger. He didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just pull him out of the room for a moment and open the hatch to send it all out into space.
Roger shot him a look that reminded Gil of the animals from the old Flintstones cartoons—small animals repurposed as tools for menial tasks like mowing the lawn or playing the role of a garbage disposal. The alien gathered up a small sample of Gil’s leavings, and then sucked up the rest in its vacuum. The alien had to get on its hands and knees to use it, a spongy-looking brick attached to a metal handle. It was so small Gil wasn’t sure if it sucked it up or simply vaporized it. As Roger left, it collected Gil’s dishes from the previous day and replaced them with a fresh meal. Gil didn’t wait long to eat it.
That was the only direct interaction Gil had with his captors that day, although he saw a lot of them. All four of the center room’s doors had opened, giving Gil four wide windows to stare out of as Roger and Jeltz marched through the corridors. Before long, Gil realized his makeshift toilet was just the first order of business. They were cleaning up the whole ship. All eight of the chambers were opened, which intrigued Gil; before that point, all of the chambers’ shutters would slide back into place as soon as they were empty. Now it was as if they all had doorstops in front of them. He had a clear view of the cockpit, the exam room, the kitchen—obscured slightly by Korben—and a room Gil had previously never seen.
Midway between both the cockpit and kitchen windows, Gil saw a room where several spacesuits lined the wall on the left and what looked like a sliding escape hatch rested in the ceiling on the right. On the floor below it sat a small set of stairs, which looked to have bloomed smoothly from the seamless dark grey metal interior. It resembled the inside of an outdoor basement entrance. To Gil’s surprise, this hatch was surrounded by a thin band of yellow, as if in warning. But on this ship, where doors cut through limbs and glass would shatter like a firework on impact, Gil still had a feeling he could simply grip the hatch’s handle and painlessly slide it open without any resistance or triggered alarms.
The spacesuits looked ridiculous, mostly because of the creatures’ generally long-and-skinny body shape. They were bright yellow, save for the beige boots and gloves, and were topped with obnoxiously-large fishbowl helmets. Gil thought they looked like the inflatable air dancers they always had at used car dealerships. He once again considered how he might blow his captors out into space, this time invoking one of his favorite movies where the protagonist donned a spacesuit and opened the door to get rid of her alien stowaway. But there was no way he’d ever fit into one of those lanky suits.
In the center of the room, between the suits and the exit, there was a simple rack with several long, clear poles jutting upwards. They each rested in a slot like pool cues on a billiard rack. In fact, their girth was similar to that of a pool cue, but they were roughly half as long and terminated in a sharp point. Gil thought they looked like glistening ice sculptures of pike spears, but couldn’t determine what they might be used for. If they were made of metal, then they could certainly pass as weapons; but who would use a spear made of glass? Perhaps they weren’t weapons, but tools of some sort?
Gil consulted his mental map. He remembered the showers were to the right of this room, but he never got a chance to see the room to the left. He cursed himself for lingering in the cockpit as long as he had—despite the terrible unfamiliarity of his surroundings and captors, he couldn’t deny that he was also fascinated by how bizarre everything was. He pressed the side of his face against the glass and looked until his eyes felt strained, but still couldn’t make out what was in that room. So he gave up and walked to the kitchen window.
Jeltz was putting dishes away, which made Gil smile. These creatures were usually the subject of horror movies—hiding in trees or peering through windows—so seeing aliens do mundane chores was a comically odd sight. Behind Gil, Roger was in the cockpit vacuuming up the shards of glass from the plate Gil had used to shield himself. He was surprised the mess hadn’t been cleaned up before. What have they been doing all day?
Continuing to map the ship, Gil listed off the rooms he knew of starting with the room on his left. There were the showers, followed by the kitchen, the beds, the exam room, the extra beds, the cockpit, the mystery room, and finally, the newly observed exit route. The only thing Gil could imagine might be in the mystery room were supplies. Probably stockpiles of that weird meat and a dozen tanks of drinking water, he thought. It was just a guess though; like many other aspects of this ship and its owners, Gil just didn’t know.
As he turned to observe Roger cleaning up the exam room—he couldn’t believe Kif’s mess still hadn’t been mopped up—he caught a glimpse of Korben’s arm, which had grown back to about halfway down its bicep. He did a double-take, and had to ask himself if that was where the arm had been severed; but no, he was sure it was just below the shoulder. He couldn’t forget that if he tried. He pressed his face against the glass like a child peering out a car window.
“It’s growing back,” he deadpanned, then sighed. “Of course y’all aren’t worried about safety. Why would you be?”
Gil was not at all surprised when Korben didn’t respond. In fact, in just a few short days, he’d actually gotten quite used to having these one-way conversations. Just short of talking to himself, his interactions with his captors were often similar to how a man on a deserted island might confide in a coconut.
“You know, aside from the arm thing, I really don’t see what your beef is with me. And it’s growing back anyway.” Then Gil was off to the window outside the cockpit, where he watched Roger like a spectator at the zoo.
Gil woke up peacefully the next day, on his side with his face resting on slightly sticky hands. Three of the windows were closed again, leaving Korben’s stakeout near the kitchen as the only remaining view beyond the center room. Roger and Jeltz were in the kitchen, eating yet another meal of pink cubes. When they were finished, they brought two plates and two glasses to Korben, and then walked out of sight to do whatever it was they were going to do that day. From a distance, Gil waited for the window to slide open so he could receive his ration.
With a plate on its lap, Korben slowly worked its way through its meal, one cube at a time, stopping every now and then to take a sip from one of the odd white glasses resembling the end of a flute. If the alien was trying to be subtle by withholding Gil’s meal, it failed—Gil was very familiar with this apparently universal behavior, and it was called ‘being a dick.’ When Korben was finished, it set down the empty plate, fiddled with the side of the door, and finally picked up the meal intended for Gil as the window slid open. It held the plate in its outstretched arm for Gil to take, scooting the cup past the threshold with its foot.
Gil waited for a moment, conflicted. He’d had the nerve to scream and pound his fists when there was a sheet of glass between them, but without a barrier, the giant terrified him. He felt pretty confident Korben wouldn’t kill him, at least not with the others around, but Korben hadn’t exactly been shy about inflicting any number of nonlethal injuries on Gil.
On the other hand, these beings had become almost completely demystified over the past few days. Their appearance—and especially those eyes—would certainly follow Gil’s dreams for the rest of his life, but these were not the supernatural beings so many countless wackos claimed them to be. Instead, they were just sociopaths… rough, clumsy, stubborn, apathetic sociopaths. Gil took a deep breath, approached Korben, and took his meal without issue.
“How long are you gonna keep me in here, huh? When are you going to take me home? Are you going to take me home?” Gil asked several rhetorical questions like this. Because he had no idea the aliens were waiting on someone to continue their work—all Gil knew was that this was his fourth day locked in a round room—he’d started to get the idea the ship had left the cover of The Moon to return back to wherever they came from. They were unable to complete their objective and safely return him home, so now they’d let everyone else take a shot. He hated the thought—being pulled apart in a foreign world’s massive operating theater—but he couldn’t see any other reason why he remained aboard the ship. If they were going to do something to him, why not just do it? If they weren’t, why not take him home… or just get it over with and kill him?
He reluctantly returned to the center of the room and consumed his small meal. Several days of that raw meat had left him with an almost unbearable taste in his mouth. Each time he woke up, his saliva would be thick and foul. His morning breath was tinged with the taste of raw meat stuck between his teeth. When he finished his portion, he took the last sip of water into his mouth, swished it around for a while like mouthwash, and spat it back into his cup. He stared at the murky water for a moment, considered, and then drank that too.
With nothing else to look forward to for the day, Gil pondered his fate until the lights went out, and fell asleep.
Hours later, Gil awoke suddenly to the sound of a loud crash somewhere outside the center room. He shook his head to get his bearings and listened intently. He held his breath, and after a moment, he could hear light footfalls—multiple pairs of feet scurrying around a different part of the corridor. Gil thought this was odd. He remembered that he’d heard Korben stomping around when he first met them, but this was otherwise the only time he’d heard them through the walls. And so loudly… they must have been running around out there. The dim orange glow sill tinted the room. For lack of a better way to put it, Gil thought it must still be the middle of the night. He turned around to face the only window. Korben was gone. Gil’s brow furrowed in confusion as he rose to his feet and walked over to the window.
Hands pressed against the glass, Gil peered out into the corridor. He continued to hear footsteps pounding around him, but saw nothing until either Roger or Jeltz caused Gil to gasp and jump back with a start as it abruptly sprinted past the window in a panic—at that speed, they were too similar in height for Gil to be able to tell the difference.
The footfalls stopped suddenly and reversed direction. It approached the window, but Gil saw only a portion of its face peek at him from the edge. A second later, a panel slid shut over the window, and the footsteps resumed around the corridor.
What the hell is going on out there? Gil thought. The sound of footsteps continued for some time, along with the occasional voice—never words, just exclamations—and Gil eventually followed the commotion to an area close to the mystery room. He pressed his face to the panel closest to the room, which didn’t help. And then, just as suddenly as he’d been jerked from sleep, the commotion ceased. Once again, all he heard was the hum of the strange disc.
The overhead lights flickered on—whatever had happened, it was nearly the end of the night cycle anyway. He stared blankly at the wall for a few minutes, intensely curious, and then finally gave up.
After a moment’s hesitation, he set his fists to the wall and started rubbing. The touchscreen came to life quicker than he expected. He didn’t feel ill, but wondered if he maybe had a fever. He touched the option he hadn’t chosen last time, which slid the panel out of the way but kept the window in place.
They all turned around to face him, and Gil shouted in surprise. Korben, tall as ever, stood with its severed arm now terminating at the elbow. Jeltz and Roger stood at its side. But behind them, another alien stood, covered in thick smears of bright red blood. And despite how similar they all looked, he swore the bloody one was Kif.