CW: creepy looking creatures, talk of violence (nothing shown), swearing
Dylan slept in the uncomfortable metal bed. The mattress was thin; the joints creaked and screeched at every move; the single threadbare blanket felt like sandpaper on her skin; but she slept. She had no choice. None of them did. Sleep was forced upon them whenever they weren’t required to be awake.
It was mercifully dreamless, at least. Dylan didn’t have to relive the deeds she’d been forced to do. The things she’d been forced to help with. Sitting in the back of her own mind, frantic with the inability to stop what was happening.
Rounding up the citizens.
Beating, sometimes killing, those who tried to escape or cause trouble—examples to the rest.
Forcing families into separate holding pens—because that’s what they were, no doubt about it.
She saw them enough any time she closed her eyes, at least sleep was an escape.
The gilted bronze beings that had appeared, growing from the shadowy figures, three weeks ago
(god, was it only three weeks?)
had been followed soon after by a variety of others.
Tall, thin giants, everything about them skeletally gaunt. They towered across the landscape, and any who didn’t avoid their feet were trampled without a thought. Dylan had seen it happen. Heard the cut off scream, the crunch of breaking bones.
Squat, boxy creatures, employed as literally immovable guardians of the holding pens. No eyes. No mouths. No faces. Just a box, with stocky legs, and arms that could stretch impossibly far, pincers at the end able to snip a person in half with ease. They were dense enough in body to leave footprints in solid cement, and they simply could not be moved by force.
There were flying things, some like enormous dragonflies, with teeth. Enormous silver birds, whose shadow could sap the strength of anything they passed over.
Crawling things with more legs than she could count, shimmered off of every building. Giant beetle-like things, shells hard as titanium, scurried around, carrying things to and fro.
Giant balls of flailing tentacles that ate everything they could find.
Flame-coloured dog-like things that guarded the holding pens, and the rooms where Dylan and her cohorts lived.
More than her brain could even begin to comprehend.
Yes. Sleep was a blessing now. And in the moments before it washed over her, and the moments before she woke, she saw Becca. Painted her picture in her mind, and tried to hope that they would see each other again, without either of them held captive.
She did this now, as the world began to rush back, and sent out her thought into the ether.
I love you!
Then the blankness was gone and her consciousness rose. She felt herself trapped again, pinned down by whatever it was that controlled them, once again a mere spectator to her own actions.
The gilt bronze being before her waited as she stood and stretched, hoping she’d be allowed a shower and a change of clothes today. The things didn’t seem to concern themselves with such matters, and often forgot that humans did. Or maybe it was just fun for them to watch the imprisoned humans feel gross and uncomfortable. It was really hard to say.
At least they let them use the toilet regularly.
The being pointed her towards the toilet and allowed her a modicum of privacy while she used it, then splashed water on her face.
Then, grunting at her, it pushed her ahead and they walked, the only sound that of the being giving directions.
After a while, they arrived at one of the buildings the things had made their own, and Dylan was pushed inside, hearing the door close and lock behind her.
It was the reception area of a building containing several business—mostly law firms—and as Dylan looked towards the reception desk, she found herself startled into a fit of giggles as she saw one of the gilt beings behind the counter, a headset over its bulbous head, staring at her.
“You are expected. Floor 2, room 5,” it intoned, the sound echoing slightly off the marble floor and raised roof. “Use the lift. Do not dawdle.”
These were orders, and Dylan felt herself obey.
The lift muzak surprised her into another fit of giggles. It was just so strange. The receptionist, the muzak, the office. How could anything this mundane be real right now?
The lift pinged and the doors opened on a drab hallway, with boring picture frames containing boring stylised pictures of succulents.
As she entered, Dylan saw Room 5 was just as drab as the rest. Grey walls, cream carpet and ceiling, metal desk, executive chair. The only thing not boring was the figure sat at the desk.
Not in the chair. That was rolled off to one side. The figure sat on the floor, but it was tall enough for its waist to reach the top of the desk, and Dylan laughed some more as it brought its 6 arms together, folding the hand on the middle pair atop the claws of the bottom, and beneath the tentacles of the top.
It was bulkier than the skeletal giants, though not as filled out as the squat guardians. It had three sets of legs, each similar to the corresponding arms. Its face, though…
Its face was pure white, even the three sets of eyes. It had small, flapped, slits across the centre and each side of the face, maybe nostrils? Gills? Dylan wasn’t sure. Its three mouths were set in triangular fashion, one low on its chin, the others above and to each side, overlapping slightly. It had no hair that Dylan could see, and its head was long and wide, and almost flat.
It was, by far, the most ridiculous and terrifying sight Dylan had even seen. And this was the first time she’d seen a creature like this—she definitely would have remembered.
So was it new? Or had it just been hanging out, content to direct things from here?
It stared at Dylan with all three sets of eyes, seeming happy to wait until she was done examining it.
When she was, the thing motioned to the executive chair, and Dylan’s body wheeled it around to the front of the desk and sat.
When it spoke, it was with all three mouths in unison, creating a harmoniously beautiful sound.
“I will speak with the you inside of you,” it said.
In a flash, Dylan found herself returned to the front of her head, able to move and speak again. For a few moments she was too surprised to do either.
The creature waited.
“Uh. Thanks? What are you?”
All three mouths smiled, “Interesting first question. I am Autax. I command the army you work for.”
Dylan stared at Autax, waiting for more.
“I find your kind more interesting than most I encounter. All the beings under my command hail from worlds I took myself. I took their strengths, removed their weaknesses, turned them into what I needed. I will do the same here, but my troops are no good to me unless they are free. Willing. They must choose to accept their enlightenment, and understand the punishment for disobeying. I select only the best, and you are one of my choices. I can offer you, in return, something for yourself. But you must bind yourself to me and allow the changes I will make.”
They sat in silence for long moments. Autax was perfectly, eerily still. No fidgeting, no shifting to get comfortable. Not even seeming to breathe. Apparently satisfied to wait forever for Dylan to formulate a response.
Dylan, for her part, was completely flummoxed. Not even in her wildest nightmares (back when she could have them) would this scenario have occurred to her.
“I…have…uh…questions…” Dylan said eventually.
“Naturally. And no doubt some well-chosen words for me as well. Do not fear. Whilst we remain here, in this space, on this day, you will come to no harm.”
Dylan considered this some more, then met the central set of eyes with her own. Why bother beating around the bush? Either the thing lied about her being safe whatever she said, or it didn’t.
“You’re a fucking murderer. You hunt down creatures wherever you land and you twist them into versions of themselves even they wouldn’t recognise, gain their obedience by removing anything else, then send them along to start on the next place. And you think this is something to be coveted? To want? It’s monstrous. Barbaric. Just like forcing Skills on people, trapping them inside their own minds, and forcing them to do your bidding against their own kind.”
The creature nodded, its expression never changing.
Dylan went on.
“And what about the rest? The ones you don’t single out for this great fucking honour?”
“Unfortunately we cannot take every being with us when we leave. And when we leave, there is nothing left behind.”
Dylan stared again, momentarily lost for words in her fury. She stood and paced behind her chair.
“You leave nothing? Why would you? Why would you dare leave behind even the miniscule chance someone might come for you and make you pay for what you do.”
She stopped suddenly and faced the creature, “Do you breathe? Take in oxygen like I do?”
The creature nodded.
Dylan approached the desk, placed both hands on it, and leaned her weight forwards, “Then I pray you never take another breath without remembering all of the breaths you’ve taken away.”
She pushed off the desk and sat back down in the chair, waiting to see what Autax would do next.
She was more than surprised when all three of the creature’s mouths smiled.