Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Mammal Cage

This is the first short story in the science fiction story collection The Claw and the Eye and the first chapter of my 2011 NaNoWriMo effort, Pyte:

Piper woke up and coughed. Dizzying pain shot through her head. She shaded her eyes with her hand and began to open them, but the stabbing light nauseated her, and she shut them fast. She spat out sand and tried to stand but only fell on the burning, shifting surface. She tried again and again but always ended up in a crumpled heap on the sand. She stopped when she thought she heard voices.

They were voices alright, but she couldn't make out what they were saying. She tried to yell to them for help but all she could manage was a hoarse squeak. Her throat burned. She tried to look for them but the sun on the sand was too much for even a quick glimpse.

The voices came closer, and she realized they weren't speaking English. There seemed to be two of them, and they picked her up and put her in some sort of vehicle and drove away.

She didn't open her eyes until the vehicle had stopped and the voices had moved her to a cool, relatively dark place. But even then, she may as well not have bothered. The images she saw made no sense.
She'd been laid on her side on a sort of table: that much she could tell without looking. And when she opened her eyes, she could make out walls and a ceiling, painted white or off-white. She thought the room might be an unusual shape, not square, but she was so dizzy she couldn't be sure.

But what made no sense at all was the people. The people who spoke a foreign language, who were now beginning to wash her face gently with cool water, looked like people yet not like people. They stood upright and wore clothes--strange clothes. They had hands with four fingers and a thumb. But they were scaly-skinned and a color somewhere between gray, green and brown. Their fingers ended in claws and their bald heads wore spines. "I'm hallucinating from the heat," she thought, "or just dreaming. I should try to go to sleep, so I'll wake up." One of the lizard-people rinsed the sand out of her mouth and gave her a cube-shaped thing with a tube sticking out of it, helped her put it to her mouth. It was like an oddly-shaped juice box with the straw in the bottom instead of the top. She sucked on the straw and cold water rushed into her mouth and soothed her throat.

Meanwhile, someone was washing the sand off her arms and legs and putting some sort of cooling balm on her sunburns. She felt sleepy and her headache was beginning to subside. She finished the water box, put her head down, and went to sleep.

When she woke up, she found herself lying on a sort of cushion in a huge metal cage. There was water there, not in a little juice box but in a big solid box like a square bucket. She cupped her hands and drank. The water was lukewarm but clean, and she was thirsty. Beside the water was a purple object she'd never seen before, on a six-sided plate. She sniffed it, but it had a sharp, pungent, awful smell. Maybe it was insect repellent. The only other thing in the cage was an empty box with a hinged cover, possibly made of some sort of plastic.

She looked through the bars at the room outside the cage. The walls were a plain, painted white, not broken anywhere she could see by either pictures or windows. Maybe there were windows around the corner, though, because a soft light came from somewhere, and she didn't see any lamps or light fixtures. The ceiling was painted white, too, but exposed beams gave it a more interesting look than the walls. The furniture--if it could be called furniture--was large and lumpy and couldn't be easily classified as anything. There were no chairs, no tables, no couches, no desks or bookcases or anything else that had a name. There were four big shapeless soft-looking brown heaps and one or two highly-polished heavy-looking wooden blocks with designs carved into the tops. She had to say 'one or two' because from the cage she could see one distinctly, and the other one barely, so it could have been a second wooden block or something else entirely. The floor was a mottled lavender color, and when she reached her finger between the bars and poked it, she found that it was made of something rubbery. The bottom of the cage was lined in something similar, but in sort of a brown color, and under that were the metal cage bars.

What she didn't see was any people. Quietly, she reached her arm between the bars in one end of the cage where there seemed to be a door, and felt for the latch. She thought she found it, but couldn't be quite sure. She wished she'd had a mirror so she could see it as well as feel it. At any rate, if that was the latch, it was locked. She examined every inch of the bars, and found no other opening, nothing else that seemed to be a latch, no way of popping the hinges, just a woven mesh of round metal bars, about four inches apart.

She knelt and had another drink from the water-box, stood up, took a deep breath and yelled, "Help!" She breathed again and yelled, "Help me, I'm kidnapped!" Again and again she yelled, as loud as she could. Once she attempted a good shrieking scream, but it sounded unimpressive and hurt her throat, so she went back to yelling. Then she listened. All she heard was silence except for a faint sound of water sloshing, as though someone were taking a bath in another room with the door open.

"Hello, is anyone there?" she called in a more moderate voice.

Silence, not even sloshing.

"Is anyone taking a bath?" she called. "I need help. I've been kidnapped."


After that, there was nothing she could do but wait. She was hungry and needed to use the bathroom. Her headache had started to come back, and she was bored. She decided to pass the time by practicing her French. At least she'd be well-prepared for next week's final. She exhausted her tiny French vocabulary pretty quickly, making up as many different statements as she could come up with, and telling them to the big brown heaps. Questions, she asked of the lavender floor, but of course it didn't answer. She had just begun to attempt a review of her American History class, when she began to hear noises.

She sat on the cushion and listened and waited. The noises came steadily closer, and soon she was sure there were people in the house. The question was, were they her kidnappers or someone who could help her? Either way, she was desperate to get to the bathroom. "Hello," she called. "Who's there?"

She wasn't surprised to see two people enter the room and approach the cage. She was surprised to see how they were dressed. She hadn't been hallucinating earlier: the people really had looked a lot like lizards, and here they were again. Now that she was alert, it was obvious that it was a costume, a disguise. "I guess that's good news," she thought. "If they're hiding their identities, then it means they don't intend to kill me."

The lizard people were both men, and one was smaller than the other. The smaller one looked at Piper with a quick, curious, amused glance and continued through the room and around the corner, in the direction of the sloshing Piper had heard earlier. The larger one unlocked the cage and opened the door.

Piper's desperately-full bladder gave her courage, and she hurried right past the big man and began to search hurriedly for the bathroom.

She found it, but it was the oddest bathroom she'd ever seen and she almost didn't recognize it. The toilet, for example, was only about a foot high, had no tank on it, and was round instead of oval. She didn't care: she was growing desperate. Quickly, she shoved the door to close it, only to see that the big lizard-man was holding it open. "Please," she begged, "close the door."

The man only laughed and kept his grip on the door. She tried to push him off, but his arm was huge and fit, and she couldn't budge it.

Finally, she gave up. Fortunately, she was wearing a sort of tunic or smock-top, and she pulled it down over herself and was able to get her business done without too much immodesty.

There didn't seem to be any toilet paper, but there were some squares of something that looked like blotting paper, and she used one of them. It was rough on her delicate skin.

She looked for a sink, but there didn't seem to be one. Maybe she'd need to wash her hands in the kitchen. The big lizard-man still held the door half-open, half-shut, blocking her exit, and for the first time, she got a really good look at him and realized just how big he was. He must have been close to seven feet tall, or at least six and a half. He gestured toward a triangular object installed in a corner, but she didn't know why. He switched hands on the door and reached his right arm out to put his fingers in the object. Suddenly, water began to flow from a hidden pipe, making little splashes on his clawed fingertips. Piper jumped and the man laughed. She put her own hands in the same spot, water poured onto them, and she did her best to wash them without soap.

When she was through, the lizard-man let go of the door and stepped away, letting her out of the bathroom. He gestured to Piper to follow him back to the cage, but she shook her head and turned right, looking for a way out of the house. He responded by putting his huge hand on Piper's back and nudging her toward the cage. When she resisted, he pushed, and when she tried to squirm away from his hand, he knocked her off-balance and caught her again. So she walked to the cage and he kept his hand on her back. It was a cold hand.

The lizard-man followed her into the cage, ducking for the doorway, and guided her to the empty box. He lifted the cover and squatted over the box, like a mime using an imaginary latrine. Piper made a face and looked away. So the box was meant to be a chamber-pot. The idea was disgusting, but if she had to be shut in here again, even a box would be better than nothing.

He got off the box and closed the lid, and it was her turn to play the mime. She started by pretending to wash her hands. The lizard-man imitated the motion, and she wasn't sure what to make of that, but she hoped that at least it meant he understood the request, and she moved on to her next one. But how did one use gestures to request toilet paper? Instead, she led him out of the cage and back to the bathroom, and grabbed a handful of the blotting-paper squares herself. Back in the cage, she set the blotting paper next to the box and put her hand to her mouth, pretending to eat. He picked up the six-sided plate with the purple thing on it, and tried to hand it to her, but she held her nose and pushed it away. He laughed and walked out of the cage, shutting her inside but taking the plate with him. Soon he returned with the same plate, or one just like it, this time bearing an object roughly the color of ivory. At first she thought it was an orange with the outside skin peeled off and the inside skin left on, but when he'd brought it close she realized it was a vegetable she'd never seen before. Unfortunately, it didn't smell any better than the purple thing. In his other hand, he had a big five-sided bowl of water, which he set beside the box, but not too close to the blotting paper.

After that, they left her alone again, locked in the cage hungry like before. She saw the smaller man briefly as he walked back through the room, his strange clothes dripping as though he'd just taken a shower without remembering to undress. He wasn't small, she realized: he only looked it next to his huge companion.

She tried to sleep to pass the time, but she was too hungry, and besides, her headache was getting worse. At least she didn't need the bathroom anymore. By putting her mind to it, she reviewed all her courses, even going back over the French again. After that she tried to think of something else to think about, but her head hurt too much, and she just sat on the cushion with her head in her hands, staring at the brown floor for a long time. Occasionally, she heard the sloshing again. She didn't know how long she sat like that, but eventually the pain in her head began to subside, and she stood up and began to pace the length of the cage, to stretch her legs. "I'm like a tiger in the circus," she thought, "except I'm not the one with the claws."

By the time the lizard-people returned, her stomach hurt from hunger as well as her head. She'd had to use the box, which was difficult because it was too high for her, but at least this time she had privacy. And the cover fit well and seemed to seal in any odors. This time it was the big one who gave Piper an amused glance and disappeared in the direction of the sloshing sounds, and the regular-sized one who stopped at her cage and unlocked it. She handed him the plate with the stinky vegetable, and he took it away and returned with it full of something else. It was some sort of tubular-looking green stalks that looked vaguely like overgrown chives or small scallions and had a smell somewhere between tomato paste and rubbing alcohol. She was so hungry she put one of the stalks in her mouth and bit it. It didn't taste quite as bad as it smelled, and if she held her breath she could manage to swallow it. It felt so good to eat something again, and she finished the plateful.

The lizard-man grinned through his scaly mask and began to stroke her head, roughing up her hair a little as though she were a dog. She barely had time to turn away from him before vomiting it all on the rubbery brown floor.

To Piper's relief, the lizard-man didn't seem angry, only surprised and disappointed. Without bothering to lock the cage, he walked quickly to one of the odd-shaped room's corners and retrieved an object that had been hidden from Piper's view. It was a pale grey cylinder, about the size of the larger lizard-man's thigh. He must have flipped a switch on it, because it began to hum, and he waved it over the spot where she'd vomited and all the vomit disappeared.

"Nice vacuum cleaner," she remarked.

"Dice vacuub cleader," he repeated--if it really was a he. It seemed to Piper that the voice was a woman's, but then, she could have been imagining it. After all, she hadn't eaten anything for who knows how long--not that had stayed down, anyway--and she was dizzy and having trouble focusing her eyes. She went to the cushion and sat down, and the lizard-person, whichever sex it was, left with the vacuum cleaner, locking the cage this time.

She let her body slump onto the cushion and closed her eyes: she couldn't really see through them anyway. She thought she heard sloshing again, but couldn't be sure if she was hearing or imagining or dreaming it, or if she was awake or asleep or somewhere in between.

She thought she heard voices: a man's and a woman's. She thought she should try to make out what they were saying, but then she couldn't bring herself to care.

No longer hungry, she lay there, alternating between a vague desperation for some kind of change and an irrational wish to lie there undisturbed forever. Never quite alert and never quite asleep, she had no idea how long she remained that way. She only knew that at one point the two voices came nearer, and someone began to spoon something into her mouth. By reflex, she swallowed. She didn't notice when the spooning stopped and she fell asleep.

When she awoke, her headache was gone and she was alone except for the sloshing sound.

She used the box, relieved to find it empty and clean, then had a drink of the lukewarm water and looked at the six-sided plate. To her surprise, it contained what appeared to be pieces of fresh fruit and cooked meat, although she couldn't have said what kind of fruit or what kind of meat. It smelled delicious and she suddenly felt very hungry. She began cautiously by biting off the tiniest corner of one of the meat pieces, but it tasted so good that she soon had the whole plateful finished.
Then she went back to the cushion and slept again.

This time she woke with the voices quite close: the lizard-people must have come back while she slept. She sat up and saw them reclined facing each other on the two closest brown heaps, the big man on the heap to her left and the smaller one of ambiguous gender on the heap to her right. At first she thought they were having an argument: their strange words exploded from their mouths with a vehement force. But they looked relaxed, maybe even happy, their facial expressions and body language suggesting an intimate chat between close friends.

Between them was one of the heavy-looking wooden blocks, and now the deep carved recesses in its top were filled with what seemed to be strange fruits, nuts and flowers. Occasionally, one or the other of the lizard-people would reach for a handful of these and eat it.

She couldn't be sure--she'd been so hungry when she'd seen them before--but it seemed to her that they had changed their clothes. At least, she didn't remember having seen the shapes of their chests before. And yes, they definitely both had chests--male chests. On the big one, that was to be expected. But the smaller one, despite its male chest and masculine bearing, had unmistakably female hips and a decidedly feminine voice. It wasn't even one of those voices that could have belonged to a man and been softened by training and practice. It was just a woman's voice, pure and simple.

Piper stepped to the water-box for a drink, and froze. She looked through the bars at the reclining pair and suddenly understood. "You're not wearing costumes," she said to them, even though she knew they couldn't understand her words. "Those are your real faces, your normal clothes, your regular kind of toilet. And I'm not your prisoner; I'm your pet."

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