We were at the breakfast table when the upper half of our house disappeared. The ground thudded and vibrated — glasses and fine china rattled in Mum’s for-best cabinet. I frowned up at the clouds, which dotted the blue sky. A breeze ruffled my hair and I inhaled the clean air. Bits of cereal dropped from my upraised spoon. They plinked and plonked into the milk in the bowl.
“What on Earth—” said Dad but that was as far as he got. All three of us rose up into the air. A wooden clatter as one of us knocked our chair over. Something shattered — it might’ve been Dad’s mug of coffee. I hope it wasn’t the one with ‘WORLD’S #1 DAD’ on it. I bought him that one.
Mom screamed and struggled. “Francis! What’s happening?”
“I don’t know, dear.” Even in abduction, he remained at least somewhat disinterested.
We floated up, out of what remained of our house. I pirouetted and got a view of the neighbourhood. Everybody — Jim next door, Dave down the way, Margaret and Steve, the Hanson twins — drifted from their houses.
Every home was in two pieces. The upper part lay upside-down, next to the lower halves. The buildings opened up like a box or a chest. I squinted at the connection, but I could see no hinges — at least, not from this distance. Had they always been able to do that?
“Don’t struggle,” said Jim, my elderly neighbour. He had to shout for me to hear him. Lots of screams punctured the air, along with the deep mechanical rumble. “Just accept it.” He smiled and offered a knowing nod. Easy for him to say. His wife had been dead 12 years — of course he was at ease with the situation. Life could throw nothing more at him.
I fought and struggled like a trapped pig. As did Mum. Didn’t do us any good, though, we all floated from our homes one and the same. At least I didn’t scream as much as her, I would have blown my voice out. Small wonder she didn’t. Dad seemed rather unfazed. His expression was the one he gave door-to-door salesmen with unimpressive wares.
Up and up we rose, like helium balloons released from the grips of a million children. We ascended into the clouds. Some prayed. Others cried and praised God. “We’ve been called by the Lord!” said Marge, tears in her eyes, hands clasped together. “We’re off to Heaven!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the odds of us all getting into the pearly gates were slim. Plenty of sinners in our little town — myself included. Whatever was happening, I didn’t think it was a miracle. Colour me a cynic.
The clouds above were not quite right. Big and white, as usual, but the fluffiness wasn’t there. They lacked their whispy edges. They were more… there. As if they’d read my thoughts, black squares opened in the underbellies of the clouds. Metallic thunks and clunks. A mechanical whir. The doors yawned like mouths. Some began to scream. Others continued to scream.
Against our will, the things disguised as clouds drew us up into the darkness. One sucked up my mum, another took me and my dad. An invisible boundary down two-thirds of our nuclear family. Who knew how they decided who goes where?
“Honey! Honey, no!” My mum kicked and screamed at the invisible tractor beam. She tried to swim through the air. Her arms and legs flailed.
Dad reached for her, fingers brushed against fingers.
And then she was gone.
A fractured heartbeat later, we were too.
* * *
Darkness. Below, the open square door afforded us a view of our neighbourhood. The houses — now devoid of life — reformed themselves. The upper sections, which lay upturned to the side of the foundations, folded back on. If you didn’t focus on the lack of people, the scene looked almost pedestrian.
Once they’d pulled the last of us inside, we hovered — my group and I. About 20 of us in total. Then a mechanical thud and click, followed by an electronic whir.
The door began to close.
The herd, which had calmed down for the half a minute or so we’d hovered in the shade, started to panic. Screams. Whimpers. Yells. Some were defiant and swore at the enclosure. Others begged and pled. It made no difference.
Beneath, the square of natural light narrowed, squeezed tight, and then thudded shut. The void smothered all. I couldn’t even see my own hands in front of my face. I prodded my nose with my fingers, to reassure myself they were still there. I then touched my eyelids — to check I did indeed have them open.
A loud click snapped through the interior of the thing that wasn’t a cloud.
And we dropped.
More screams, high-pitched, unhinged.
We didn’t drop far, though. About six inches. Nobody expected it, and we all collapsed in a heap of bodies, limbs tangled. We landed where we entered, onto the closed door. Metal, cold and hard. Grunts, gasps, groans. We writhed, we fought. Some kicked, some punched. Others were on the receiving end. All struggled.
We grumbled as we staggered to our feet. No easy feat, in the blackness. A few mutters, some asked others if they were okay. By the sounds of it, the worst anyone had suffered was a bruise or a bump. One person claimed they had a bloody nose, but in the absence of light, this was impossible to verify. I didn’t know where Dad was, but he was in here with me, somewhere. That stopped the panic, to an extent. Poor Mum — she had to cope alone.
The hum started low at first. The floor beneath vibrated. I said nothing — wasn’t sure if it was my imagination or not. Pins and needles wasn’t out of the question. We’d recently experienced a tractor beam and a small fall, followed by lots of standing around.
“What the bloody hell’s going on?” said a man somewhere to my right.
“The whole floor’s shaking!” said another male voice, somewhere to my left, further into the crowd.
“It’s gonna explode!” shrieked a woman.
“Calm down, Deidre, it’s not going to explode.” The voice soothed.
“You don’t know that, you don’t—”
The roar swallowed whatever Deidre was about to say next. An explosion, below and around us. Humongous, unnatural. The whole place shook, which prompted further screams. I rolled my eyes, concealed by the shadows. At some point, the situation had to no longer shock. We were all scared — no bonus points for terror. It was rude to shriek into somebody’s ear. Everybody was in the same boat. Or the same cloud.
The crowd lurched forwards and backwards with the motion of the cloud-shaped entities. And then we were all pressed to the wall, bodies smashed into one another. Winded gasps. Inertia. Momentum. Reaction.
We were on the move.
* * *
It’s hard to say how long the trip lasted. I fell into a sort of doze. Rather uncomfortable to do, whilst stood upright. At some point, the hum stopped.
“We’ve stopped,” said some bright spark.
We all waited, expectant, hesitant. Breaths held. Hearts hammered.
Thump. Click. A mechanic whir. An electronic beep. A pneumatic hiss.
The door beneath began to open.
Light, pale green and sickly, blinded us as it shot through the gap. Those who’d been on the edge that retracted first fell through the rift. The screams that rent the air inside the cloud were more frantic than the previous. What lay beneath us? What would we fall into? Or onto? How great a height?
No time to think.
Some dropped and grasped the edges as they fell, but they didn’t manage to cling on for very long. The bodies that fell knocked most down. The desperate stamp of feet crushed the fingers of the rest.
Before I dropped, I locked eyes with my father. “Love you, Son,” he said. The only time he’d ever said such a thing. It squeezed out of him, like a winded gasp.
And then he was gone.
A moment later, so was I.
* * *
We didn’t drop far. About six feet or so. Enough of a drop to hurt a few of us — some hollow pops and snaps as bones cracked and twisted. More howls and yells, these ones born of pain.
We landed on top of one another, a carpet of bodies beneath, a blanket of bodies above. One giant mass of writhing humans. We righted ourselves again, as we had before. This time, some of us definitely sustained injuries. A few couldn’t stand — bones protruded from the skin, feet dangled as if attached by a thread. A fair bit of blood trickled from noses or gashes on foreheads.
The air around us didn’t taste the same. Thinner, somehow less satisfying. As if it was necessary to breathe more of it to get the same amount of oxygen as back home. I scrambled to the edge of the crowd and sucked in some air there. I hoped it would ease the claustrophobic suffocation that brimmed in my chest. It did, to a degree.
It also put things in perspective.
A wire fence encircled us. I hooked my fingers into the loops — brown and rusted — and pushed my nose through, as far as I could manage. Beyond, I could see giant cages.
Cages filled with humans. Filled with men. A few ladies dotted the crowd, here and there. Older women. All suspended by wires from the ceiling. Connected to the far ends of the enclosures were corroded metal tubes.
Overhead, harsh fluorescent lights shone down. Whether the bulbs themselves were green or whether it was the air here, I had no idea. Corrugated metal sheeting lined the walls around us, as far as the eye could see. The far wall was not visible. The warehouse — that’s the first thing that came to mind, a warehouse — stretched on and on into oblivion. Cages upon cages upon cages.
I looked up and around at the fence I clung to.
A cage. All around us — on all six sides. Above. Below. In front. Behind. To the sides.
My chest tightened and I wheezed.
The floor beneath my feet was identical to the walls I clutched. Rusted diamond squares looped into one another. The view beyond sent a ripple of vertigo through me.
We were high up.
Incredibly high up.
So high up, I struggled to estimate. The height of a ten-story building, more or less.
At the bottom, all the way down, a nice red carpet lined the ground. I frowned. That was odd.
Someone nudged me. A man to my left. Haggard, skinny, unshaven, messy hair. Several visible wounds — scratches, cuts. Most had congealed, but a few produced fresh droplets of blood. “Admirin’ the view, ey, lad?”
I squinted at him and nodded.
“‘S’not carpet, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
It had been. I looked back down at it. “What is—”
I locked eyes with him.
He smiled a maniacal grin. And then he nodded and yielded. “Well, not just blood. Blood, bones, organs. That sorta thing.” He glanced around at the cage, the corrugated metal walls. “It’s also not a warehouse, either.”
“It’s a market,” he said with a nod. “A human market. They come in here, take a look at which cage they like the look of the most, make a bid, and then they have us.”
A shuffle and a surge from the crowd pressed us into the side of the cage. We both wheezed.
The man smiled again and offered me his hand, as best he could. I noticed he was missing one of his front teeth. The crimson stain on the other teeth indicated it was a recent loss. “I’m Jonathan, by the way,” he said, the wind knocked out of him, a slight lisp. “Jonathan Windbury.”
I hesitated, and then took his hand. As best I could. “Martin Scholnik.”
Jonathan nodded. “Nice to meet ya, Martin. Now, listen to me, and you’ll survive. At least, the first one, anyway.”
I furrowed my brow. “The first what? What is this? What’s happening?” My mouth, which I’d clamped shut, now flooded with questions. I was helpless to stop them. “Who are they?”
I overloaded him with the frenzy of queries. “One thing at a time, my lad. Old Jonathan’s brain isn’t what it used to be.” I got the impression that if our arms weren’t pressed to our sides he’d have tapped his temple. “You’ll see ‘em well enough, lad, if you survive long enough, that is. They’re aliens of course. Couldn’t tell you the name of the species or the location of the planet, mind.”
Winded all over again. My mind scrambled. The question — the most important question — peeped out of me, like the squeak of a mouse. “What do they want with us?”
Jonathan seemed taken aback. “Why, they eat us, of course.” He said this as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
“They want to—” My jaw dropped. “Oh.”
Jonathan grinned. “You haven’t seen it yet, have ya?” He turned his head — quite an effort, with the density of the crowd — to look at the far end. I followed his gaze.
My stomach churned and dropped. The blood in my veins turned to ice. “Oh, God.”
“No God here, lad,” said Jonathan. He chuckled. “Just you, me, the aliens who’ll decide our fate.” He gestured with his chin. “And our friend the high-speed grinder, there.”
The moisture in my mouth evaporated. “It’s… it’s barbaric.”
Jonathan pulled a face to say, Eh, could be worse. “No different than what we did to chickens. ‘S’fair enough, I suppose.”
Below, a metallic clang and a thud. I looked down in time to see a door slam shut.
“Drat!” hissed Jonathan. “Too busy nattering. We missed ‘em!” Jonathan’s beady eyes scanned the cages beyond. “Which poor sods are next?”
As if in answer to the question, a metallic click came from above.
Jonathan laughed. It was a mad sound — he was out of his mind. “Looks like it’s us, lad!”
The grinder at the far end began to spin into motion.
The screams that followed made those that preceded seem like whispers.
People tried to make their way to the opposite side — to our side — away from the blender. But the aliens, it appeared, had done this before.
The cage tilted, back end up.
People stumbled and fell down the gradient.
“Quickly, lad! Quickly!” Jonathan elbowed me in the ribs. “Hold on tight!” He gripped the wire fence with a white-knuckle clutch. I now noticed he wore no shoes or socks. He hooked his toes through the lattice gridwork of the rusted fence. “Follow old Jonathan, that’s it, lad! Do as I say, and you’ll survive this one. As for the next one? Who’s to say!” He then cackled.
I did as he told me. “They can’t do this!” I said. Screamed into his face. “It-it’s against the law! It’s illegal! Somebody’ll rescue us!”
Jonathan smirked and shrugged. “Eh. Take it as it comes. Can’t change it. At least we got to be free-range.” He raised his eyebrows.
“You don’t wanna see the battery cages.”