Dan Larson heard the tiny shout as the rolled up Car and Driver Magazine he was wielding slammed down and squashed the fly that had landed on his night table. His body filled with a cold, creepy chill. The word sounded so distinct, so clear. It was as if someone had been standing behind him.
He jerked is head around to survey his bedroom. He was alone.
Slowly, Dan lifted the magazine to reveal what was underneath. His jaw slid open with disbelief. His eyes widened. Around the squashed body were small pieces of metal, a miniature spring, and what looked like little rivets and screws.
Tiny feet scuttled across his arm. He bolted upright and reflexively slapped the magazine against his flesh with a painful smack, missing.
The word popped into his ears again, loud and distinct. He sat stunned. A grasshopper the size of his thumb stood on his pillow. But this was no ordinary grasshopper. Dan leaned down for a closer look. The grasshopper’s legs weren’t legs at all, but a series of tiny pistons and mechanical joints. Its belly was a smooth piece of metal and its antennae were two tiny wires.
“What have you done?” the grasshopper scolded, in a firm, female voice.
Dan jerked back, shocked at the grasshopper’s speaking.
“We must win this war!” the grasshopper continued. “If you destroy us our chances of victory will be slim!”
“You’re…” Dan’s voice caught. His heart hammered in his chest. “You’re a machine!”
“A defender,” the grasshopper corrected. The stare of the grasshopper’s multi-faceted, unblinking eyes greatly unnerved Dan. “Your home is ground zero for a Cyderion infestation. Come outside. We have much to accomplish and we haven’t much time.”
Dan shook his head. “This can’t be happening. You… you can’t be real?”
The grasshopper jumped onto the windowsill. “There is no time to convince you of the extreme danger to your world.” It opened a small slit in the screen, and wiggled through. “In one hour your backyard will be the staging ground for a major assault. If we fail to prevent the Cyderion from placing a homing beacon they will come by the billions. Your way of life will be forever altered.”
The grasshopper jumped into the night.
In a state of disbelief and with indecision buffeting his head, Dan sat for a few moments thinking if what had just occurred had really occurred. It was late, past midnight, and he was tired. Perhaps, he’d just had a waking dream?
He turned his head and looked at the squashed mechanical fly on the night table and realized with horror that this was no dream. Trembling with apprehension, he slid from the mattress, stepped to his closet, and dressed in t-shirt and jeans.
He opened his bedroom door and tiptoed down the hallway. He wasn’t trying to sneak out he just didn’t want to wake up his mom. Ever since his dad had died from pancreatic cancer, his mom had to work two waitress jobs to pay the bills and she usually came home from work exhausted. Tonight was no exception.
Dan descended the stairs, crept through the living room, and then carefully unlocked and slipped out the back door.
Evening air held a humid, watery quality. The full moon glowed as if ignited from within. It was quiet, eerily quiet. Ghostly radiance filtered through saplings sprawled along the edge of the forest. Strange, featureless shapes unraveled into trees and shrubs as Dan’s sight adjusted to the opaque light. He looked to the sky. Sequins of stars glittered faintly above the afterglow of the distant town.
The grasshopper landed on his shoulder. Dan jumped and nearly swatted it, but refrained. His nerves electrified.
“Regiments of Cyderion are heading in this direction,” the grasshopper said. “I will direct you to the Defender lair where we will formulate a battle plan based on your knowledge of these surroundings.”
“You want me to go where?” Dan questioned.
“Into the forest. I will direct you to the Defender lair.”
Dan stood stiffly. His mind craved answers before he went tramping off through the woods in the middle of the night.
“What are Cyderion?” he asked.
“Cyderion are slaves of the Dirus that serve as the Dirus military. It is imperative that we exterminate them before they establish a fortified bunker and send out a homing beacon. Your knowledge of these surroundings is crucial to the success of our counter-assault.”
Dan glanced up at his mom’s bedroom window. Concern flooded him.
“What if I don’t want to help?” he questioned.
“Defenders will do our best to stop the infestation.”
“And if you fail?”
“Then all the creatures of Earth will serve the Dirus for eternity.”
The lawn behind Dan’s house sloped gently passed saplings and undergrowth to a woodland of mature oaks and willows. An old deer trail cut through the thick, swampy undergrowth but it was too dense to follow, so Dan made his own, crunching over sticks and fallen branches, and plowing through high grasses. The ground softened. Marsh water soaked through his sneakers and dampened his socks.
But he trekked on under the guidance of the grasshopper.
He pushed away a thicket of cattails, trudged over exposed tree roots, and interrupted a drifting patch of low-lying fog. Vegetation thinned and then gradually fell away to an open area surrounding a large pond.
Dan stepped to the water’s edge. A light breeze scalloped the surface causing moonlight to laser-beam in chaotic, silver blinks. The grasshopper leapt from his shoulder to the ground and pulled aside a pile of leaves revealing a small, quarter-size hole in the mud. Dan knelt to get a closer look. A thin circle of metal lined the opening, securing it. He peered deeper. Faint light glowed from the depths of a long, downward sloping tunnel.
“This is where we monitor Cyderion movement,” the grasshopper said, and then jumped beside a log half submerged in a ditch of sludgy muck. “You will find what you need to enter the Defender lair underneath this camouflage.”
“Enter that hole?” Dan questioned. “That’s impossible!”
“Look underneath the log.”
Dan reached down and lifted the wood, which was not wood at all, but a lightweight, plastic-like material. A swarm of yellow jacket bees torpedoed from underneath. Dan scuttled back and nearly tripped over his own feet. The buzzing cloud whisked around him in a tornado of activity and then flew single file into the Defender lair.
“Bees guard the Angelian Teafly honey,” the grasshopper said. “We wouldn’t want a passing squirrel or a raccoon getting a hold of it.”
Dan looked down at the indentation left by the wood. Yellow honeycomb lined a metal, reinforced burrow.
“Eat some,” the grasshopper said. “It is your key to understanding.”
“I’ll pass,” Dan declined.
“You must!” the grasshopper insisted.
“What does it do?”
“It will allow you to gain access to the Defender lair.”
Dan hesitated. “Is it safe?”
“Of course… when used properly.”
Dan reached down and pulled off a grape-size chunk.
“A little more,” the grasshopper said. “Angelian Teafly honey in its natural form is not nearly as potent as the concentrates.”
Dan broke off another grape-size piece and held the sticky substance between his fingers. He sniffed. The honey smelled like old gym socks that had marinated in lime juice.
“That should be sufficient,” the grasshopper said. “Consume it all at once.”
Dan gathered his wits and put the whole glob into his mouth. The honey had an organic, earthy flavor, like chewing on a mushroom. He separated the wax to the side of his cheek and swallowed the liquid; then spit the leftover wax to the ground.
His limbs tingled. All of a sudden his stomach felt like he was riding a curvy roller coaster. His muscles clenched. His vision swam with dizziness.
“What’s happening to me?”
With a decelerated rush, trees grew to the height of skyscrapers. The wood-like stump enlarged to the size of a school bus. Pebbles transformed into huge boulders. The small pond became an immense ocean. The grasshopper turned as large as a horse.
Dan stood slack-jawed, his thoughts snapping. The wad of wax that he’d spit was as big as a car. He padded his chest, his thighs, and his face.
“What have you done?” His voice came out high and panicky.
“Angelian Teafly honey causes the vast spaces between atomic molecules in your cells to compress,” the grasshopper replied. “You are the same except for your volume. The honey also possesses extraordinary healing properties.”
Overcome with surprise and astonishment, Dan nearly freaked out and took off running.
“Will I get large again?” he asked.
“Of course,” the grasshopper replied. “The effect only lasts a brief time when taken in the natural form.”
Dan glanced at his reflection on the water’s surface. His hair was still short and black, his chest and shoulders still thin and lanky; but the pimple that had been beside his nose for the past week had totally disappeared.
“How come my clothes shrank?” he asked, as he touched where the blemish had been and looked around at the massive world.
“Chemicals in the honey interact with cells where it causes a physical reaction. Shed skin cells are intertwined in the fabric. Compression is then passed from those shed cells into those that construct the fabric.”
A quick swirl in the water caught Dan’s attention. Bubbles the size of automobiles popped on the surface. Liquid churned. Two refrigerator-sized, amber eyes rose slowly from the depths and then in a quick explosion of liquid a bullfrog the dimensions of a house burst from the pond and landed on the shoreline with a mighty thud.
Fright tore through Dan. He attempted to run but his feet had got sucked into the muck and he fell backward. The bullfrog shifted and focused on him.
The grasshopper flicked its wings repeatedly, drawing the bullfrog’s attention. The bullfrog shuffled its legs and repositioned. Its tongue slingshot out, snagged the grasshopper, and yanked the mechanical insect into its massive mouth. The grasshopper’s tiny metal leg stuck out the side like an after-dinner toothpick.
The bullfrog shifted and focused back on Dan, who nearly screamed out with terror.
The bullfrog leapt, not at him, but straight up into the air. Blood spilled from its mouth along with the fully intact grasshopper. The bullfrog landed, bounded around the shoreline in thunderous, spastic circles, and then dove into the pond leaving a red swath in its wake.
Dan scrambled to his feet.
“Make me large!” he shouted. “Make me large right now!”
“You were never in any danger,” the grasshopper responded.
“Never in danger!” Dan inhaled shuddery breaths. “That thing could have swallowed me whole!”
“I was prepared for the encounter,” the grasshopper replied. “I felt vibrations of the creature’s presence as you approached the water.”
“Then why didn’t you warn me?”
“It was not necessary. It posed no danger.”
Dan crossed his arms. “I don’t like this! I don’t like this one bit! When can I go home?”
“As soon as we discover where the Cyderion are swarming for the attack and you can tell us what the surrounding terrain is like.”
An ant the size of a station wagon emerged from towering stalks of grass, its legs powered by pistons and pumps. Dan hustled to the grasshopper’s side for safety.
“Do not be afraid,” the ant said, and snapped mandibles made of slender, silver blades. “I will protect you until you reach the Defender lair, were it is safe from patrolling Cyderion.”
Dan and the grasshopper set off at a brisk pace while the ant flanked the path ahead of them. They reached the opening to the Defender lair, which was now a wide cavern. Dozens of mechanical ants stood guard close to the water and grass line. Their armored heads and open mandibles looked menacing.
Dan stepped inside with the grasshopper and descended down a series of shallow steps into the depths. Incandescent glowworms clinging to the walls illuminated the tunnel with an eerie, milky-white glow. Basketball-size drops of water dribbled from different spots on the ceiling. The odor of fresh mud filled the air.
They reached a huge area as large as a football stadium. Worms the size of trains slithered along the dirt and chewed tunnels into the walls. High above, plant roots hung from the roof in a mass of brown tangles. Lightning bugs weaved through the network of vines. Their bright pulses caused flickering shadows to dance on the walls. Beetles, centipedes, and spiders of various types and sizes scurried about in these shadows.
“Some of those insects are alive,” Dan observed.
A horsefly as large as a horse buzzed his head.
“They are all part of the Defender network,” the grasshopper replied. “Without the constant vigil of native insects your planet would be at great risk from rogue alien attacks. The universe is teeming with life and not all is friendly and welcomed.”
Ground trembled. Beetles scurried into the maze of tunnels along with the ants and other bugs. A praying mantis head the size of a refrigerator burst from the tunnel’s side. Using its monstrous front grasping legs, the mantis pulled the rest of its enormous mechanical body through the dirt. A worm quickly slithered behind it and repaired the damage to the wall.
The mantis’s long, wiry antennae flicked lightly over Dan’s arms and shoulders. Dan stood stiff.
“Relax,” the mantis said. “You have nothing to fear from us.”
The mantis turned its attention to a line of mechanical ants marching from an adjoining tunnel.
“Report,” the mantis said.
“Cyderion were spotted in this area,” one of the ants replied. “We are sending a patrol to investigate.”
A sharp jolt fizzled through Dan’s muscles.
“Ow!” he chirped.
And then another jolt. And another. He tensed with pain.
“What’s happening to me?”
“The Angelian Teafly honey is wearing off,” the mantis said. “We must leave at once!”
The mantis scurried from the room and up through the tunnel. Dan ran to keep pace, but slowed as his legs went wobbly. The mantis scooped him up like a captured fly and raced past the imbedded glowworms toward the exit.
Dan’s head and legs grew and scraped the muddy sides. It was an incredibly weird sensation feeling his joints swell inside his skin, his bones lengthen. He jammed. Dirt filled his ears and nostrils. Everything went black and suffocating, and then his head burst through the soil and his body exploded from the ground.
Thousands of tiny mechanical ants swarmed over him like a moving carpet and for a moment he was frightened. But the ants just cleaned the dirt off his chest and legs and started repair on the damage to the Defender lair.
Dan slowly got to his feet. A faint tar-like smell drifted with the air. The mantis, now the size of a clothespin, wiggled through the collapsed earth.
“Your sudden and unanticipated enlargement caused a disruption in the sensor sweep of the magnetic field over this area,” the mantis said. “Cyderion may pick this up. We must be extra vigilant.”
The mantis handed him a square of plastic wrap. “It is too dangerous for you here. Take some Angelian Teafly honey and go back to your home. We will come for you when we are ready for your assistance.”
Dan took the plastic wrap and stepped to the artificial log. He turned it over. Yellow jacket bees flew up in a protective cloud, but allowed him to reach down and pick up a golf ball-size piece. He packaged and dropped it into his front pocket.
“Head in that direction!” the mantis stated, and pointed into the forest. “The route is safer. Go now! Go quickly! Before they target you!”
Dan took off through the woods striding in great leaps, fuel by a weird, unknown fear. Sharp grasses scraped his legs and sliced tiny cuts, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get home.
The way back seemed quicker and before he realized, he broke from the forest and was heading up the lawn. Golden dawn-light expanding over the world caused morning dewdrops to sparkle. Birds warbled from tree tops.
Careful not to wake his mom, he crept into the house and tiptoed up the steps to his bedroom. He closed the door and flicked on the light. 6:05 a.m. beamed from the alarm clock beside his bed.
A moth bumped the window and then bumped it again. A light breeze infused with the scent of tar drifted through the screen. Faint sound, like tiny claws scratching on wood caught his attention. His eyes followed the sound to a stain on the wall where the siding had leaked. He noticed a tiny hole. Specks of sawdust formed a thin trail leading in his direction.
He looked to the foot of the bed and felt his face go white with fear. Standing on his sheet was a creature about the size of a quarter, with a long, dinosaur tail, leathery wings, and a fearsome jaw crammed with rows of bristling teeth. The creature looked like a miniature dragon from a child’s fairytale.
The creature’s eyes glowed red. Thin red laser beams shot from them into Dan’s left arm. Pain blasted up his nerves and exploded into his chest. He jeered back, rolled off the mattress, and stumbled toward the door, feeling as if his legs were filling with liquid lead.
Another miniature dragon-like creature flew up with bat-like wings from underneath the bed. Its eyes glowed red. Beams shot from this creature’s eyes and hit Dan’s left cheek. It felt like a bomb went off inside his skull. Pain flared along his muscles and paralyzed his face. He couldn’t focus his eyes. He couldn’t shout for help. He could barely breathe.
He reached out for the doorknob and felt his body fall, his chest slam against the floor, his chin bounce. The dragon-like creature flew to Dan’s nose and pushed a tiny needle into the tip.
Dan’s vision tunneled. Claws poked and scratched at his skin. He heard a strange voice that hissed words he did not understand.
Consciousness blinked away.
The odor of tar wafted into Dan’s nostrils. A thousand bass drums pounded in his head. He tried to open his eyes but it was as if they had been glued shut. He thought hard to orient himself. To figure out what had happened and where he was. His mouth was dry. His arms and legs felt like stone. Something hot blazed above his face.
“The server is conscious,” said a girl’s voice. “His vitals are stabilizing. He will survive. I will take my leave so that you may continue with the examination.”
“Excellent,” responded a voice with a hissing lisp.
The heat source switched off and Dan regained control of the upper part of his body. He opened his eyes. Dim red light illuminated the cramped space. He was on a hospital bed in a room filled with devices he had never seen before. A strange, mechanical object hung from the ceiling like a spidery apparition. Rows of bottles containing different color liquids lined a shelf.
He turned his head slowly and the muscles in his neck clenched.
A dragon-like creature gazed intently at a glowing computer screen as it typed on a keyboard with its claws. It turned, noticed Dan looking, and lumbered to the table.
“Do you understand me?” it asked.
Fright kept Dan from answering.
“Can you communicate?” the dragon-like creature questioned.
The dragon-like creature grabbed Dan’s head, poked a claw between his lips, pulled open his jaw, and peered down his throat. Bitter taste of cold, scaly flesh filled Dan’s mouth.
“You have vocal chords,” the dragon-like creature said, and released. Its eyes turned red. “I’ll ask once more. Do you speak?”
Dan forced saliva and swallowed.
“Yes,” he groaned.
“Do you understand me?”
“Good. There should be no problem following commands.”
The dragon-like creature went back to the computer screen. Dan propped up weakly on his elbows. The tiny cuts on his legs from his run through the forest were gone.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“You are on our ship.”
“Who are you?”
“You will know your place soon enough. I am preparing you to serve. One more test and this phase of your conditioning will be complete.”
Paralyzing heat came back on and turned Dan’s body into a useless shell. He fell back against the table with his eyes open, unable to move or even blink. The Cyderion stepped over holding a turkey baste-looking device with a long, hair-like needle at the tip.
“I am going to take a sample of the breath in your lungs,” the Cyderion said. “This assures your placement on Dirus will contain the proper atmosphere.”
The Cyderion aimed the needle at Dan’s ribcage. Panic raced through his immobile body. He tried to move, tried to force his muscles to react, his throat to scream, but all he could do was watch the needle go down into his chest. There was no pain, only a soft, vacuum hiss-sound and the mind-blowing sensation of feeling his breath pulled from his lungs.
The Cyderion removed the needle, wiped a jelly-like substance on the impact wound on Dan’s chest, and then went back to the computer.
The paralyzing beam shut off and Dan slowly propped up on his elbows, again. There was a spot of blood on his shirt but the puncture underneath was gone.
“Your assessment is next,” the Cyderion said.
“Assessment for what?”
The beam flashed back on and Dan fell against the table. The table vibrated, rose, and then floated on a cushion of air out of the room and down a blue corridor into a massive space the size of an empty barn silo. High above, Dan saw a faint spear of light shining from a small deck jutting from the wall. The door closed and the beam shut off. His was free to move about.
He slid off the table and steadied his wobbly legs on the concrete floor. His muscles felt watery. Nausea swished his belly. All of a sudden his limbs tightened and then felt as if they were being stretched. He crouched down and drew his knees to his chin. The table banged against his ankle and flew across the room. Next thing he knew, his head slammed against the ceiling forcing him to hunch over. His feet smacked against the side. He had enlarged and become level with the deck.
A Cyderion the size of a quarter stepped out.
“You have de-stabilized,” it said. “Tuluka’s timing on the dosage could not have been more accurate.”
“Let me outta here!” Dan demanded.
He reached to grab the tiny creature. The Cyderion’s eyes turned red and fired lasers. An electric shock burned through Dan’s hand.
He lurched back slamming his shoulders against the wall.
“Let me outta here!” he screamed.
“Once we arrive on Dirus,” the Cyderion said calmly. “You will be taken to the desensitization and evaluation area where you will be assessed of your physical attributes and mental capabilities. You will then be placed and assigned a specific duty to perform for the Dirus Empire. The remainder of your life will be spent in the performance of this duty.”
“Never!” Dan stated. “I want out!”
“Soon you will be joined by many more of your kind. There is a homing beacon on your planet. We are sending additional squadrons to gather human servers. Accept your fate, any resistance is futile.”
The Cyderion stepped away and the light blinked out plunging the container into darkness. The afterimage of the deck faded slowly from Dan’s eyes. He rubbed his palm. Pain lingered like a bee sting.
He shuddered in the cramped, eerily silent space.
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Hours stretched. Dan thought about how he could escape. He could easily kick open the door, but what good would that do? He was too big. Then he remembered the honeycomb.
He patted at the lump in his front pocket.
Strange? he thought. Why didn’t they confiscate it? They had to have known it was there.
He unwrapped the plastic, pulled off about half the substance, and held the sticky bit in his fingers. His heart pumped. He shimmied, jackknifed his legs to his chest, sucked in a deep breath, and then kicked at the small door with his heel. It didn’t budge. He kicked again, his thigh muscles shooting like springs. Nothing. He flexed his leg back one more time and then kicked with every last ounce of strength. The door burst apart.
Alarms went off throwing Dan’s nerves into overdrive. He swallowed the honeycomb, wax and all. His muscles tingled and tensed, and then his surroundings became a decelerating blur. A split second later, he was tiny at the bottom of the giant enclosure.
Ripped on the possibility of freedom, he took off through the busted door, turned left down the maze of corridors, and then turned left again. Sirens jangled the air. Bone-jarring alarms rattled his ears. Sweat drained from his pores.
He ducked into a room.
Along one wall, a web of hoses led into a ventilation space above the floor. He grabbed hold and climbed up into a long, narrow tube that branched off into endless tubular tunnels. Thin conduits secured by silver strips of metal snaked off in every direction, interrupted here and there by large, gold valves.
He heard movement below.
“Check the ducts,” a Cyderion hissed.
Dan crab-crawled into an adjoining tunnel just as a Cyderion poked its head up into the space. Dan tucked his legs against his chest. The Cyderion’s eyes blazed red and the pipes and conduits brightened with an eerie glow. Dan crouched fearfully. He didn’t move. He didn’t hardly breathe. His pulse beat in his ears. His ankle cramped.
Still, the tunnel glowed.
He clenched his teeth against the pain in his leg; thought about his mom and his friends back home; wondered if he would ever see them again.
After another long minute of torture, the crawlspace darkened. Dan inhaled deep breaths of relief as he rubbed out the fireballs in his leg.
He crawled on his hands and knees through the maze of air ducts not knowing what to do or where to go. He reached an area where a low hum murmured and rattled the grates. Suddenly, the section of floor he was on gave way. He fell, but grabbed the edge of the next section. It held for a few moments, and then broke off.
He tumbled to the ground and quickly scrambled to his feet, ignoring the new points of hurt pinging through his body. The room was unoccupied. The hum that shook the ventilation grates came from a huge, yellow square in the corner. Dials, monitors, and gauges lined the walls beside it. He stepped toward the device. It had a small oval window. The glass was feet thick, but polished to perfect clarity. He peered inside.
What looked like solar panels surrounded a small cup of bubbling, lava-like liquid. Wires and tubes crisscrossed and connected into the bottom of the cup. Every few seconds, the liquid pulsed with a shock of light and the gauges increased their readings.
Dan stepped back. Rows of lights ran the entire length of the opposite wall. Each light had a switch with a picture of a planet underneath. Most of the planets resembled Earth but with different shaped continents.
He reached out to touch one of the pictures. Six Cyderion with blazing eyes entered the room.
Dan looked from side to side. There was no place to hide in the interplay of shadows and light, and the space he’d fallen through was too high for him to reach. Panic blew through him. He took off across the room toward the door. A blast of energy slammed into his back and an almost unbearable pain ricocheted between his limbs. He fell and skidded into the wall. His eyelids swelled. He saw blurred, dragon forms rush toward him and then a red flash. The beam impacted his head. He lost consciousness.
Dan awoke sprawled on a table in a different room than he had been in before. This room was smaller and square and had no spidery-looking equipment hanging from the ceiling. Handcuff-like restraints bound his arms and legs to the table, but he was able to turn his head. A girl about his age stood in front of a computer. She was thin, with a pretty face and blonde hair cropped short like a boy’s. Her skin was smooth and pale, lightly spotted with freckles. Her eyes were artic blue.
A Cyderion stood a few feet away staring at him.
“He’s conscious,” the girl said. It was the same voice Dan had heard before. “His vitals are returning to normal.”
The Cyderion flicked a switch on the wall and leaned into a speaker. “The server is healthy enough for the trip. Prepare for the warp spin.”
“As you command,” a voice returned.
The girl stepped from the room. The Cyderion maneuvered beside Dan and leaned down close to speak into his ear.
“Escape is futile,” it said, its breath a hot breeze of tar-scent. “There is no way off this ship.”
Dan struggled to lift his arms. The restraints tightened.
“We are entering the warp spin,” the Cyderion said. “You will be on Dirus shortly. You will accept your servitude… or you will be terminated.”
The Cyderion left the room.
A moment later, air weighted Dan’s lungs as if it had thickened into liquid. He was having trouble breathing. His stomach knotted. The walls shimmered. Temperature dropped to freezing. Many times the force of gravity pulled on him. High-pitched creaking sounds, like metal bending, reverberated through the ship. Surroundings twisted into a spiral of shape and color. A loud crack, as if the universe had torn apart, and then all was still and quiet.
The clamps binding Dan’s wrists and ankles released. He threw his legs over the side of the table and lurched toward the door. It opened. Two Cyderion as tall as telephone poles stood with their eyes blazing.
“Follow us!” one commanded.
They hustled Dan down the red-lit corridor with their huge bodies blocking his view from in front and behind. They reached a door. One of the Cyderion leaned close to a speaker on the wall.
“Cheekota,” it said, and the door whooshed open.
The Cyderion’s massive claws grabbed Dan by the scruff of his neck and pushed him down a plank that led into a vast coliseum-like area with a steel floor and dome ceiling hundreds of feet high. Cyderion of all sizes; from massive tree-size, to tiny insect-size, bustled dozens of strange-looking creatures into lines of three. Creatures, most about Dan’s height, some with distended bellies, some possessing multiple arms and legs, some with tentacles instead of limbs; scurried into position. A few were coated with thick, colorful pelts, some wore otherworldly clothing, some were slithering pools of gelatin with tendrils, and a few had turtle-like and snail-like shells. Some had eyes and some not.
Their collective sense of gloom and hopelessness was nearly tangible.
Dan saw two human-like creatures mixed in among the different species. An old man and an old woman. Both had wrinkled, gray skin, and matted black hair. They turned, revealing long yellow tails protruding out their backsides and spikes where shoulder blades should’ve been.
A Cyderion pushed Dan into a line.
“Wait for further instructions!” the Cyderion stated, and marched away.
Dan examined the physical attributes of the other two creatures in line with him. The creature in front looked like an upright walking salamander with white skin and grapefruit-size, human-looking eyes. The creature behind him was one of the few creatures that were larger than him, about twice Dan’s size, with a cat-like face, two kangaroo-like legs, and a furry, rabbit tail. Four stubby octopus-like tentacles dangled from each side of its obtuse, hippopotamus body.
“What are you looking at?” the cat-face creature snapped, and its tail bristled.
Dan cringed, yet was fascinated. “I… I’ve never seen anything like you.”
“Of course you haven’t,” the cat-face creature replied. “I am a Looiga. Thanks to the Cyderion there are only a few hundred of us left. Cyderion ambushed me as I was gathering my supper. They injected me with something that shrank me to this—”
A Cyderion marched over with its eyes beaming red. Dan stepped back reflexively and the Cyderion fired a blast into his chest. Every muscle in Dan’s body instantly turned to mush and he collapsed.
“Don’t zap me!” the Looiga pleaded. The Looiga dropped beside Dan, spread its tentacles in a helpless gesture, and then protectively over his face. “It is my pleasure to serve! I want to serve! I want to serve!”
“No communication!” the Cyderion stated. “No more warnings!”
The pain eased in Dan’s body and he slowly staggered to his feet, legs rickety and quaking. He stepped back into line. The Looiga stared ahead.
Red light burst into the room as the entire far wall of the area slid to the side and created an opening as high and wide as a five-story building. A hot, tar-scented wind pushed through the space.
“Servers will follow supervisors to the placement and evaluation area,” a voice boomed.
Lines of creatures started moving toward the opening. A half-dozen Cyderion approached Dan’s line.
“Move ahead!” one shouted.
Dan felt a push to his back, and then he, the Looiga, and the Salamander-creature walked through the opening and onto the planet. Two suns burned above in a sky the color of a lava flow.
The sun-drenched landscape was barren; a sweep of dry, open land. Turquoise rocks jutted stiletto-like from the ground. Thorny, leafless plants with branches twisted into bizarre shapes poked from the bluish dirt.
Dan felt another shove and the three walked around the immense circular spaceship. Sun glare reflected off two more identical spaceships docked on the launch pad behind them.
Ahead, monumental buildings ten times the height of the largest skyscraper soared into the sky with spires reaching into the clouds. High up, an interconnecting web of enclosed passageways weaved between the architecture.
They marched toward the buildings and stopped in front of one that rose so high it made Dan dizzy when he looked up.
“Cheekota,” a Cyderion said, and the door leading into the building opened.
The group stepped inside. Air smelled heavily of tar. The door closed, plunging them into darkness.
“Welcome servers, welcome,” said an almost jovial voice.
A spotlight silhouetted a figure seated on a small stage.
“This is Dirus,” the figure said. “Here is where you will serve out the rest of your life.”
The room brightened. It took a few seconds for Dan’s eyes to adjust, and when they did, he saw the face behind the voice seated on a golden throne. This was not a Cyderion, but a creature that resembled a wingless mosquito; thin, lanky, and insect-like, with an expressionless face framed by stringy, silver hair twined into braids.
“I am Kintar,” the figure said, and rose on spindly limbs covered with fine, translucent scales. “I am your administrator. You will learn what I teach and listen to what I say. Failure to follow my strict guidelines will result in termination as a server to the Dirus.”
A door in the wall slid open. Three more Cyderion marched out and took position behind Dan and the others.
“Cyderion will escort you to your workstation only once,” Kintar said. “So commit it to memory. Once you are acclimated, you will be free to walk the city on your own as long as you fulfill your daily quota of work. You will be able to truly appreciate the greatness that is the Dirus Empire and what an honor it is to serve.”
Dan swallowed and felt a quiver in his gut. His throat was dry and his stomach empty, but he was not about to ask for food or drink.
“Escape from the city is suicide.” Kintar’s stick-like arm swept in an arc. “Beyond the empire lie wasteland and a wild, unpredictable climate. The outer lands are rampant with deadly creatures. Accept your servitude with dignity and you will live a comfortable existence.”
Dan stumbled from a push from behind and he started walking. He held back his anger aware that he was outnumbered and defenseless.
They continued into an elevator and then rose hundreds of feet above the ground. Doors opened to reveal a huge, glass-enclosed sky walkway that connected the buildings. Dan looked down from the great height onto a city unlike any he’d ever seen. Long, low structures connected with massive towers and ornate domed buildings intermixed with large sections of earth and construction. A wide, quick running river ran in a gully through the city’s infrastructure and continued in a slight downward grade to the very edge of his visibility.
Far across the expanse, he spotted four gorilla-like creatures carving a tunnel into a cliff with hand shovels. Two were huge and towered against the landscape like moving mountains. Two were diminutive and barely discernable among the rocks.
“Move!” a Cyderion ordered.
They stepped from the elevator. Crowds of strange and bizarre-looking creatures populated a massive above ground walkway. These creatures were like nothing, and everything, Dan had ever imagined. One nearby life form resembled a sunflower but had orange, tulip-like flowers with bright blue eyes on the ends of translucent petals. And it was hardly the most exotic. Another individual appeared to be an oversized lump of yellow jelly with large butterfly wings. Another looked like a fish out of water except with a monkey’s head. Some of the aliens could best be described as transfigured humans with hands where their heads should be and eyeballs on their knees. Others were bizarre morphs of familiar animal, human, and insect features; flies with hands, a caterpillar with cat-like legs, a moth with the ears of an elephant. It looked to Dan like someone had taken animal parts out of various bins and put them back together at random. Some were tiny as mice, others as large as houses.
The group stopped in front of another elevator. The door opened and a push from behind sent Dan sprawling inside. The Looiga and salamander creature followed. The door closed and the elevator lowered without the Cyderion.
“There’s no guards!” Dan stated. “Let’s make a run for it when the doors open.”
“And go where?” the Looiga replied, intertwining his upper tentacles. “Do what you want. I want to live.”
“As a slave?” Dan questioned, fiercely.
“I will do whatever is necessary to stay alive,” the Looiga answered. “My family were slaves to the tyranny of the Thinorians, who also raised us as their food source. They slaughtered my father when I was young, my mother when I was a few years older, and then my cousin, right before I escaped. Serving the Dirus is a lifestyle change, not a death sentence for someone’s dinner plate. I can accept that.”
Dan glared at the salamander creature, aghast at the thought of living his life on some foreign planet and never seeing any of his family or friends again.
“What about you?” he asked it. “Are you happy being a slave?”
The salamander creature looked to the floor without speaking.
“I never said I was happy with it,” the Looiga interjected.
“We have to escape!” Dan exclaimed. “We have too! We can’t just give up!”
“We cannot survive without the provisions of the Dirus,” the Looiga said, logically. “Why do you think they left us alone? They do not care if we try to leave. They don’t care if we escape.”
“That’ll be their mistake!”
The Looiga wrapped a tentacle around its whisker and preened. “Accept the hand fate has dealt you, human.”
Dan clenched his jaw. “Never!”
The elevator doors whooshed open and four Cyderion approached, dashing Dan’s plan for a swift getaway. The Cyderion ushered the group down a vacant corridor into a large, empty square room with three doors spaced equally apart along one side.
“Cheekota!” the Cyderion said, and one of the doors opened.
Dan stumbled inside from a sharp shove to his shoulder while resisting the urge to spin around and wail the Cyderion in the snout. The space was the same as the giant, missile-silo room that he’d been imprisoned in on the ship, except with no observation deck.
“You will remain here until the Angelian Teafly concentrate wears off,” the Cyderion said. “Your assignment precludes that you be your proper, human size.”
The door closed.
Dan stood alone, feeling depressed, in the absolute darkness. Images of his life appeared before his inner eyes. Mom cooking breakfast in the kitchen. He could almost smell the bacon. Walking to school with his best friends, Tim Madison and Jamie Richards. Did they even know he was missing? Did anyone know?
Tears well behind his eyes but he blinked them back. Seconds turned into minutes. Minutes seemed endless.
Suddenly, his skin tingled, his muscles constricted, and a weird pulsing pressure built in his ears. His back slammed the wall. His elbows smacked against the sides. His head hit the ceiling and caused him to hunch over. The once immense room had become the size of a trashcan. And he was stuffed into it with little room to move.
A sound like the unscrewing of a jar. Dan snapped open his eyes. He’d been asleep. But for how long?
The ceiling lifted up as if connected on the side of the container by a giant hinge. Dazzling red sunlight beat down on his face. He blinked until his vision adjusted and saw a regiment of quarter-size Cyderion positioned around the container’s rim. His head swam in disorientation, his neck was stiff.
“Step out!” a Cyderion commanded through a megaphone. “Any deviation from our instructions will result in your termination as a server to the Dirus.”
Dan hauled himself to his feet and staggered. He flexed his shoulders and stretched out the kinks in his sore legs and spine. At his full height, he towered above the Cyderion and saw a clear view of the surroundings. Urban structures seemingly without end overlaid the landscape. A high, security wall clipped the horizon. Where there happened to be open ground, creatures in multitudes of shapes and sizes were constructing new architecture.
Dan turned his head. Dozens of rows of containers like the one from which he’d emerged spanned behind him. Their tops were open and they were empty.
“You will be escorted to your assigned workstation,” the Cyderion said. “You will be instructed of your duties there.”
Air buzzed with a faint, mosquito-in-your-ear sound. A tiny Cyderion flapping bat-like wings hovered above Dan’s shoulder and then flew a little bit ahead of him.
“Follow!” the Cyderion with the megaphone commanded.
Discontent swept through Dan as he stepped from the container and down a road, traversing beside city buildings that looked as if they were miniature models. The Cyderion landed in front of a tower about Dan’s height and perched on the sill. A small section of wall slid open. Kintar emerged accompanied on either side by two more Cyderion.
“Welcome, server from planet Earth,” Kintar said, his voice smooth and uplifting. “You are wondering what will happen to you? Why you are here? What is your purpose?”
Dan scowled. I could kill this thing with a flick of my fingers, he thought.
Kintar continued: “Today is a great day for you. Today is your first day of service to the Dirus. You will serve to your fullest potential and in return we will provide you with all that is necessary to sustain a long and productive life.”
“Not a chance!” Dan stated.
Kintar turned his tiny head in a questioning slant and fixed Dan a long, measuring look. “How can you not want to serve? Do you not feel humbled and subservient in the presence of a superior being?”
“You’re not superior!”
“I highly disagree.” Kintar turned to leave. “Either accept or be terminated as a server. The choice is yours.”
Dan raised his hand to squash Kintar. In an instant, a Cyderion eye laser blasted into his chest. Pain raged through his system, crippling his muscles. He fell against a building, and he and the building crumpled to the ground with a thunderous crash, sending dust into the sky. Immediately, strange millipede-like creatures emerged from underground tunnels and started repair on the damage.
“That is your only warning,” Kintar said, politely. “Go to your workstation and begin service.”
Dan made a concentrated effort to restore his equilibrium. He rolled to his hands and knees and struggled feebly to his feet. The Cyderion hopped off its perch and buzzed up to his face. It circled around his head and then took off toward a distant mountain range topped with blue, snow-covered peaks.
Dan staggered forward. Hatred drove him on.
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A few hours later, they reached the base of the workstation. The ground was hard-packed dirt interrupted with stony outcrops. Great boulders lay at the trailside. A quarter of the way up the clearing Dan spotted the Looiga, as large as a house, lifting dust into the wind as its tentacles tore shrubs from the ground. The salamander creature was there, digging vigorously into the rock with its webbed fingers. A little further up was what looked like housing; a large metal cylinder surrounded by a few smaller ones.
Six more Cyderion flew up and buzzed in circles around Dan’s face. They led him up the hill, which gradually became more rugged, until he reached a plateau littered with shaggy foliage and treacherous rocks. Crude tools, some as small as pins, some as large as cars, were piled next to several large tents.
“This is your workstation,” a Cyderion said. “Nourishment will be offered when the projected workload for the rotation is completed.”
“Workload?” Dan questioned. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Clear debris,” the Cyderion replied.
The remaining Cyderion flew away and headed back toward the city. The Looiga came up the path, logging a huge, thorny bush.
“I’m getting outta here!” Dan stated. “I’m not scraping rock!”
“And where will you go?” the Looiga said, and dropped the load into a larger pile.
“Who cares! It’ll be better than this!”
“Will it?” the Looiga replied. “There are even deadlier threats beyond the city.”
“So they say. What if they’re lying?”
“It’s a chance I won’t take and neither should you! I choose life over death no matter how limited it may become.”
Dan squatted on his heels, dropped his head into his hands, and scratched his scalp. Homesickness hit hard. He felt like crying.
“I can’t give up!” he said, gritting his teeth in determination. “I just can’t!”
The Looiga walked to the edge of the clearing, wrapped its tentacles around a prickly, yellow shrub and pulled it up by the roots.
“Our assignment is to clear this area of debris and prepare it for new construction,” the Looiga said. “You had better start working. You will not receive nourishment until you have fulfilled your quota.”
“I don’t even know what my quota is,” Dan said.
“Your quota,” the Looiga replied. “Is to work until they say stop.”
Dual red suns crawled across the sky and threw sizzling light. Hunger growled in Dan’s stomach. Thirst pruned his lips and dried his mouth. He refused to work and sat defiantly in the dirt.
The Looiga and salamander creature had cleared a large area of rubble above the construction site and were still tearing at the ground when two Cyderion flew up carrying three silver buckets the size of apple seeds. They approached the Looiga and salamander creature and placed a bucket by each of their feet. One of the Cyderion dumped the third bucket of honey-colored liquid into the bucket by the Looiga. The bucket on the ground popped as thick, brown goop expanded and oozed onto the ground. The goop emitted odors that stank of tar.
The Cyderion dumped the remainder of the honey-colored liquid into the bucket by the salamander creature and it popped from the force of the expanding, tar-smelling substance.
“Consume!” a Cyderion ordered.
The Looiga and salamander creature glanced at each other.
“Consume or it will disperse into the mud!” the other Cyderion stated.
The Looiga lowered its head and lapped goop into its mouth with its tentacles, devouring greedily. Its furry face soaked the substance like a rag. The salamander creature stood and stared at the ground.
As bad as the goop looked and smelled, Dan knew he needed to keep up his strength. Starved, he lumbered to his feet and moved toward it. A Cyderion with fiery eyes zipped in front of his face.
“Don’t shoot me!” Dan screamed, and blocked his head with his hands.
“You will receive nourishment only when you have completed your quota!” the Cyderion stated. “Nothing until then!”
Dan lowered his hands. Both Cyderion zipped away. The Looiga sat up and preened bits of goop off its whiskers and face, ate it, and burped. The salamander creature started to dig. Its goop had dissipated into the mud.
“You must be hungry?” the Looiga said to Dan. “I do not know much about humans, but I know you need to eat more than once every seven rotations.”
“I can’t live like this!” Dan stated. “I’m outta here!”
Dan started out of their work zone and the Looiga stepped over to block his path. Its immense size eclipsed the setting sunlight and engulfed Dan in shadow.
“This is the Dirus planet,” the Looiga said. “They do not care if you escape because they know you will turn up begging for your life. You must accept this fate. I have never met a creature who would rather die than live.”
Dan balled his hands into fists. “Being a slave is no life!”
Big L gazed at him challengingly. “How little you understand the preciousness of existing. It is a gift to be savored in whatever form or path it takes.”
“And that’s exactly why I’m not gonna waste mine doing this! Being here is worse than slavery! Kintar told us we could walk the city if we fulfilled our daily quota. Well, the quota never ends! Don’t you get it? We never stop working! We die working!”
“Don’t be a fool, human.”
“My name’s Dan!” he stated.
“Okay… Dan,” the Looiga said. “Do what you have to. But if you stay, you work. Starving will only make you weak. I have little desire to watch you wither away and suffer.”
Dan paused as the realization of his dire predicament sank in.
“I hate it here!” he exclaimed.
After a few moments, the Looiga said; “My race does not distinguish each other by name, but by our appearance. I am known as Big Looiga with Short Tentacle Seven Whiskers Short Snout Bad Tooth Brown Spot Rough Fur.”
Dan trudged over to a small patch of thorny shrubs and began digging into the dirt, ripping up weeds with his bare hands, not caring if he cut his fingers. He dug out a plate-size rock, tossed it onto the pile, and glanced up.
“How about if I call you Big L?” he said.
“That is acceptable,” Big L replied. He leaned over, wrapped his tentacles around the base of a large thicket, and pulled it from the dirt.
Dan pointed to the salamander creature. “What about you? You gotta name?”
The salamander creature kept its blank expression focused on the ground. The skin on its stubby, webbed fingers had shredded into pulpy, pink flesh. Its ribcage showed through its smooth amphibian body. Its green skin had turned the color of ash.
“How about I call you Hank?” Dan said. “After my Dad. How’s that sound? You are a boy, aren’t you?”
Hank wobbled as he tossed a rock.
Cyderion swarmed the area like bothersome gnats and darted about Dan’s head. Several buzzed in front of his eyes and he resisted the urge to shoo them away.
A Cyderion whined close to his ear, “Server, you will follow us back to your container. Any deviation and you will be terminated. Any unnecessary communication and you will be terminated.”
Fear jolted up Dan’s spine. “What did I— ”
Dan glanced over at Big L. Big L kept his eyes to the ground and continued to clear debris. Hank wobbled and fell down.
The walk back to the city took hours and by the time Dan stepped into the container he was nearly faint from hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. He sat down, pulled his knees to his chest, and stared at the bare, silver walls, feeling emptied of hope.
The top closed and sealed him inside. It was dark and tomb-like; the only noise was the sound of his breathing and his pulse beating in his ears. Light shone up from the tiny door at the bottom and Kintar entered the container accompanied by two Cyderion.
“Server,” Kintar said, and his voice sounded genuinely concerned. “Why have you not fulfilled your quota? Do you not wish to serve the Dirus? Do you not want to be cared for and nourished?” Kintar’s tone was admonishing but not angry, like one might use to correct a misbehaving child. “I suppose a species as primitive and uncultured as yours needs time to adapt to new rules and surroundings. I will allow you this one mistake in judgment. After all, I cannot readily fix what millions of years of evolution have broken.”
Dan refrained from attempting to squash him.
Kintar waved his stick-like arm and a Cyderion entered carrying a silver bucket. Dan watched with steady eyes as the Cyderion dumped in a tiny amount of honey-colored liquid. Goop quickly expanded, overflowed, and spilled onto the floor.
Dan’s mouth watered at the sight of something to eat. His lips twitched, but he dared not move.
“Consume,” Kintar said. “Nothing will be gained by starving yourself to death.”
Dan thought a moment. What Kintar was saying did make some sort of weird sense. He would be cared for and fed as long as he worked. He would have certain freedoms as long as he obeyed their rules.
Is Big L right? Is this such a bad life?
Then he remembered the lessons he’d learned in history class about brain washing and sympathizing with the enemy during times of stress and war. He had to remain committed to an escape. He couldn’t let himself get comfortable in these surroundings or he’d be here forever.
Kintar turned and walked out, followed by the Cyderion. The door closed but a dim light bathed the interior in a glow that reminded Dan of the lighting inside an aquarium. He sensed that they were watching him. A sick knot twisted his stomach as he reached down and brought a handful of goop to his mouth. The goop smelled even ranker up close. He shut his eyes, stuck out his tongue, and licked. It tasted the sweetness of maple syrup.
Dan shoved what he held in his hand into his mouth. The goop was thick and filling and satisfied both hunger and thirst. He swallowed another handful, and another; and then went ravenous. Calories filtered through him and warmed his insides giving him a fresh rush of energy. Tightness of starvation eased and his dehydration quenched. He pushed more and more of the goop into his mouth, eating until his belly felt like it would burst.
He leaned back feeling satisfied, and burped. Sound bounced off the walls; a jarring reminder of where he was.
Guilt poured over him. He had stuffed himself with alien food and he felt content. He was beginning to accept the unacceptable. He shifted uncomfortably, turning to find a better position, and banged his knee. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes, and sighed. Exhaustion overtook him and his body dropped into sleep.
Dan felt his head contour against a soft pillow. Warm, wooly blankets nestled him in comfort. Tang of disinfectant drifted into his nose. He opened his eyes.