The pain didn’t stop. It didn’t lessen, or even get worse. What did happen was that I got used to it. Not entirely used to it, but enough to be able to get up and retrieve my hand-axe. I put it in a pocket so that I could keep my right arm cradled in my left, and stood over my dead adversary. Leaning against the trunk I had climbed earlier, I looked at the creature’s carcass. It was twisted gruesomely. Chunky brown gunk leaked out of the wounds I had inflicted. The stuff was also on my feet and injured arm. Something silver glinted on the creature’s underbelly, and I squatted down for a closer look. Metal encircled each of the creature’s eight limbs, fitting neatly between the joints so as not to impede movement. I filed that bit of information away. I pushed the creature with my foot so that it looked somewhat closer to what it had been like in life, but I couldn’t do anything for the cracked exoskeleton.
My arm throbbed. I leant against the tree again, and closed my eyes briefly. It was light that made me open them again. Blueish and flickering, a glowing ethereal ball hovered in front of my face. I had a brief moment of Déjà vu that quickly faded. Gradually, the light pulled away from me and hovered just in sight amongst the green trunks.
“I’ll just follow the Will O’ the Wisp then shall I?” I muttered at no-one in particular. “That sounds like a great plan. Foolproof.”
I didn’t follow it. I was sick of being manoeuvred by who or what had brought me here. I simply watched as it hovered. The Wisp came closer, and pulled away again. I chuckled despite the pain, and stayed put.
There was something tickling my foot. I looked down, and was momentarily disorientated. The ground was moving around me. The little furry bits of leaf matter were moving in the direction of the creature’s carcass. I stepped back involuntarily, and a couple of them came along for the ride on my feet. I flicked at them, and when they fell off it felt like sandpaper being dragged across my skin.
I followed the Wisp. It moved smoothly through the alien jungle, and I stumbled after it. I slipped on the treacherously moving ground and jarred my arm. Gritting my teeth, I got to my feet and ran onwards. The jungle cleared, and the wall loomed ahead. The Wisp hovered just inside my enclosure. I hesitated outside, hopping from one foot to the other as little pieces of the ground did their best to grip my feet. A particularly large one grabbed hold and solidified my decision. I scuttled back into the enclosure hastily. It shouldn’t have been surprising that the entryway closed quickly behind me, but I still couldn’t stop the curse that was ripped from my lips with surprising ferocity.
I quickly turned my attention to the two wriggling things that had managed to latch on to my feet. I ripped the larger one off my big toe and smashed it under a heel. The sore it left behind hurt but didn’t bleed as much as I was expecting. The smaller one I attacked with a little more dignity. I peeled it off and held it up by its sides to get a look at it. Soft and leaf like, it wriggled in my grasp like any beetle would do. On its underside were eight grasping limbs, and sure enough, tiny needle like teeth gleamed out of an odd-shaped mouth.
When it stopped wriggling, I set the thing down an arm’s reach away. I had done enough killing for the day, and besides; I was a generous god.
The Wisp was gone, and I hadn’t noticed it disappear. On the upside, there was another grey loaf delivered by rotating hatch, and I picked it up with my left hand in case the leaf-leach-like soft-shelled beetle decided it looked tastier than its squashed brother, which it was currently munching on.
I was in too much pain to be hungry, and so I put the loaf down on the top of the faux wood pile which looked suspiciously larger than before. I stripped to my underwear as I walked to the water, letting my ripped and gunky clothes lay where they fell. I let the water run over my legs, washing away most of the gunk. I hoped my water supply wasn’t self-circulating. When I tried rinsing my right arm, it burned so fiercely that my vision blacked out. I became aware of the taste of blood.
I would have to get the needles out of my flesh. I needed tweezers or something, but I didn’t have them. I used my teeth instead. It was painful, but the wave of relief that came when I pulled each one from my flesh was so great that I rushed through it, despite the shaking in my legs. There were two that my mouth couldn’t reach, and I forced some utility out of my ragged fingernails to pull them out. My fingers slipped repeatedly on the last, and there was a moment of panic when I considered that it might have been stuck in the bone until I managed, finally, to grasp the needle properly and pull it from its stronghold.
The lack of pain was immediate and bliss. I bathed in it for a moment. Then I picked up the teeth from where I had dropped them, and aligned them next to each other out of the way. Eight. I had pulled eight 3-4cm needles from my skin. It really wasn’t bleeding much at all, considering.
With the pain gone, my gut finally forced me to listen to it, and I made my way to the latrine. Dimly noticing that it was entirely clean and devoid of human waste, I squatted to relieve myself. I stayed there for a while after, waiting until my legs stopped shaking enough to stand. When I could, I got back to washing myself.
At the wet area, I shed my underclothes along with the last of my modesty. If there were cameras, then so be it. I washed myself with water and some help from a chunk of the pumice stone, being particularly careful with my hands, feet, and right forearm. When I was done, I didn’t particularly want to get dressed in the still dirty clothes, so I decided it was wash day.
The water didn’t really do much for the clothes, but it did get off the worst of the gunk on the surface. My cargo pants gave me the most trouble, but it was the shirt I had to peel the leaf-leech from. I let it go again but resolved to keep an eye on it. It had made fast work of its brother’s carcass.
At the end of my war on clothing, I had gained a new appreciation for my great-grandparents, though I doubted they had ever needed to do their washing in the nude. And they’d had the luxury of soap as well whereas I’d just had to rely on agitation and hope.
I surveyed the remains of the fire absently. I would need to get it started soon. It was all the more important now I had clothes to dry. Operating on a distant hope that I wouldn’t need to start from scratch, I dug around in the ashes and was pleased to find they were still warm. I found the last few hot coals in the centre. That was a welcome distraction for some time as I managed to coax fire out of the coals with some tinder and set up a proper campfire. I decided I wasn’t letting the fire go out again. My still blistered palms would serve as the reminder.
With that done, I was left to eat the grey loaf and to think over what had happened. Which was what I had been avoiding, when I thought about it. I pushed it out of my mind for the moment and focussed on the meal instead. I ate it in much the same way as I had the first time, except for keeping a small chunk of it for my companion. Which I would give to him when I found him… Gods dammit. Hunting the critter took less time than I wished it had. He was on my shirt again. I put him down far away from it and gave him the bit of loaf to distract him. I cleaned my teeth with a stick again, then dried my undies by the fire enough that I could put them on.
And then there was nothing for it but to think about what had happened. I ran through it again in my mind. Between this enclosure and the strange jungle arena to the creature and the Wisp, I had only several unsettling hypotheses to keep me company.
One – I was hallucinating. While I doubted hallucinations could be this coherent or consistent, it was funnily enough the most sane theory I had. But the place didn’t feel like a hallucination. I also had visceral evidence that I could see and feel… and he was currently eating my shirt. I retrieved the little bugger again, and held him by his sides for a while so I could see and feel him.
Two – Evil science experiment. Scientists wanted to see how well their nightmare beast would fare against an average human. But why kidnap someone? And that was only the beginning of the holes in that theory.
And three… Really this was the only one that made sense. And I had already known it, somehow, even if I hadn’t believed it. It was there in the way I described the stars, the environment, the creature. This place was… alien. Which was fine really, when I thought about it. Sure it threw my understanding of the universe on its head, but it also made a weird sort of sense. Accepting this hypothesis meant I had a framework on how to proceed, even if it meant my chances of rescue were basically zero.
If I was on an alien planet or ship, which would explain the constant night sky, then I could work out what to do next, how to act. And perhaps I could figure out the reason I was taken. Then again, aliens could have alien motivations, unlike anything I could hope to understand or predict. Though I didn’t think that was necessarily true. There would have to be some similarities in motivation and behaviour between living organisms. They’d given me food and water but hadn’t tried making contact. That could be explained if they couldn’t communicate on our level, if they didn’t care, or if they thought I was more animal than sentient. They’d given me some resources to make tools, but not anything past the stone age, nor any bedding. Not realising I was sentient would explain that too, and it was hardly alien to set animals against each other for entertainment. However, it would be a pretty big oversight to see humanity and not realise we were sentient, no matter how many jokes I had once enjoyed making to the contrary. Perhaps they had different criteria for sentience? Or perhaps they legitimately didn’t know for whatever reason. In that case, I would have to prove my intelligence.
I took a moment to consider how absurd my life had become. Here I was on an alien spaceship or planet. Me. I was the sort of person who had a favourite internal organ and thanked it. I was the sort of person who knew the meaning of words like petrichor and incongruous, and more importantly, I was the person who used them. I was out of shape – and that was putting it nicely – and had never been in so much as a fistfight. I was hardly the sort of person who should be in the middle of a sci-fi adventure, being observed as an example of humankind, or gods forbid, in charge of first contact. I ought to have been left back where I belonged… Well, back on my own, planned, much lower key adventure anyhow.
I could predict there would be another match, or test, or whatever it was. Hopefully later rather than sooner. I wanted to recover from my injuries, and prepare more weapons and a strategy that played to my strengths.
The walls had long since dimmed, and I was struggling to stay awake. I put the bug creature down then went to gather my clothes. They were still damp but I put them on and hoped they’d dry quickly. I kept my shirt off to use as a pillow.
My hair was still all over the place, but I resolved to deal with it in the morning. I put more fuel on the fire and curled up with my back a little too close to it. It didn’t matter, I would be warm, and If I caught alight, I would be warm for the rest of my life. Chuckling darkly, I dozed, and fell asleep altogether too quickly considering the events of the day. I woke only once, to tend to the fire and prod my injuries, and then I slept deeply until what passed as morning in my enclosure. If I had dreams, I didn’t remember them.