“Give your eyes a second to adjust.”
Brad stood still on the landing, Jeff was to his left and he knew that there were stairs somewhere in front of him. In the darkness below he could hear sounds, clicking, slurping, splashing. He tried not to think about it, he would see it all clearly soon enough, and he wanted to delay it for as long as possible. He had been told about them, seen pictures of them, but everyone had assured him that seeing them in person was so much worse. The room began to brighten, almost imperceptibly at first, until he could make out Jeff, who was leaning against some railings.
“We keep the lights low as possible, it keeps them calmed, settled. They don’t like any kind of light.” Brad nodded. Silence fell between them, but he could still hear those sounds. Finally Jeff pushed himself off the railings, “Shall we go down then?”
Brad swallowed, “Sure.” Jeff started towards the stairs and Brad had a brief moment of panic. It wasn’t too late to back out, not really and everyone would understand. He took a deep breath to calm himself, then regretted it. The air was stale and fetid, he coughed, then glanced at Jeff, hoping his blushing cheeks wouldn’t be seen in the gloom.
“I thought the air was piped in fresh?”
“It is. They do something to it. Not sure what, but they like it like that so we’re not too keen to go messing around with it all.”
As they walked Brad concentrated on the steps, not wanting to look out across the vast hall. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to handle seeing so many all at once.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, Jeff stopped and turned, looking out at them. He didn’t look at Brad, Brad was thankful for it. His heart was hammering wildly in his chest, he could hear a few of the ones nearby reacting to it. A kind of harsh pant, a clink of shifting chains. Calm. He needed to be calm. He took a slow, shallow breath and released it. He closed his eyes and turned, facing the noises. Then, clenching his hands, he opened his eyes.
His eyes moved over them all frantically, searching for something normal, something he could hold onto. Extended jaws, impossibly wide, tongues too red, too bright. Thick globs of saliva that drip drip dripped onto the floor. Skin a harsh red and covered in sores and blotches. Eyes, all three white, milky and roving endlessly. Slits for nostrils, like their noses had been peeled back from their face. Long, impossibly thin arms grasping for him, three fingers on each hand, ending in sharp, thick nails. Strands of loose hair hung from their mostly bald scalps, covered in scabs and things that wriggled and writhed. He turned his head away, trying not to vomit. His breathing quickened, then he felt a strange calm come over him. His breathing began to slow and deepen, a small smile appearing on his face. Everything was fine, there was nothing-pain sudden and harsh against his cheek. An arm wrapped around his and started to drag him upwards, Brad stumbled, once, twice, but he kept his balance. On the landing, Jeff let go of Brad, he was feeling a little better up here, away from it. Down below he could still hear them, he shuddered as the last remaining threads of calm vanished.
Brad nodded, unable to speak.
Finally, after a few minutes, “What was that?”
“Pheromones. Makes you docile, calm.”
“Everyone gets exposed the first time. It really hammers home the danger.”
“Why weren’t you affected?”
“I’m inoculated against it. You will be too. They release it when they sense pray nearby. Normally it works pretty well, you got a look at them first though, usually they’re hidden away, or they drop down from above so you don’t know what hit you.”
Brad looked out, he couldn’t help himself, there were hundreds of the things, thousands. All in neat little rows, occasionally the low light would glint off saliva, a tooth, a chain. He turned away from it. Jeff slung his arm around Brads shoulders and led him towards the door.
“C’mon, we’ll take a break, then we’re going to the slaughter house. Don’t worry, it’s an easier place to visit.”
Brad nodded as he was lead from the room. They stepped into the smaller hallway that was dimly lit, the door behind them closed and locked, the one in front opened, bright light flooding the hall. Brad squinted as he was tugged forward.
Outside his head cleared fully and he took a deep breath. Jeff pulled a bottle of water from his bag and passed it to Brad, Brad unscrewed it and took a sip.
“I should warn you, you’re probably going to have nightmares for a few weeks. They’ll be scary and confusing as hell, there might also be some sexiness thrown in. Don’t worry, it’s gross but it happens to a lot of people. There’s nothing wrong with you. Just thought I’d head that off now. You’re going to have your therapy sessions soon enough, but the dreams will probably hit before then.”
Brad nodded, then shuddered as an image flashed in his mind, one of the things, writhing against the chains, almost sensuously. He suppressed the nausea with another sip of water.
Jeff smiled sympathetically, “maybe keep a bucket by your bed? I threw up the first few nights. There’s no shame in it. Happens to the best of us.”
They stopped outside a plain, unmarked door. Jeff pulled down the handle and opened it smoothly, Brad had expected there to be a lock, or some resistance. Jeff stepped through the door and Brad followed, closing it behind him. He stopped, surprised. The room was large and bright, couches were placed about the room, as were piles of cushions and blankets. A few of the walls had TVs, all playing something different, but with no sound. People lounged around the room, sixty in all, reclining on couches or cushions. They were dressed only in thin underwear.
“The slaughter house is a state of the art facility. He gestured at a man sitting on the couch, wearing a pair of headphones, “They are connected to the TV to provide sound to those who want it, and it allows tranquillity for those who don’t.” He lead Brad through the room, weaving around the people, they stepped through to another room, this one had a large but shallow pool and hot tubs, a few people lounged around the edges, one floated on her back in the centre of the water. “in here are some bathing and relaxation facilities. The water is heated to the optimum temperature.” He entered another door, “here is our dining facility” it was similar to the first room, but there were long, low tables dotted about the room. “The residents can order what ever they like and it will be provided. There is fresh fruit kept stocked at all times.” Jeff picked a grape from a vine and popped it into his mouth, grinning, “Have one if you like, they’re delicious, and no one will care.”
Brad went to pick one, then another image, the creature, gesturing to him. He stopped. He couldn’t eat.
“How do you keep them in here?”
“It isn’t hard, why would they leave?”
“Don’t they know?”
“Of course they do. Most have been down to the storage room multiple times. In fact another portion will be returning from the cleaning process any moment now. They don’t care. They’re off their faces on pheromones and god knows what else. They’re happy, they don’t want to leave.”
“Where did you get them?”
“Homeless, some volunteers, a few that were on death row. It’s pretty simple. We clean them up, get them addicted to what ever it is the creatures are pumping out. The drugs the creatures give them have a positive affect. Makes them a bit younger, healthier. There’s ongoing research into marketing it as a self improvement aid, though I don’t know how long it’ll take to work out the kinks.”
“Well, it won’t work if everyone turns super docile and they’re not too concerned with much of anything, would it?”
“I guess not.”
They left the room and entered a courtyard that was covered in lush, green grass. More people lounged out here, some in hammocks, some lying in the grass.
“So they’re extinct everywhere else, right?”
Jeff nodded, “we have the last known survivors. The rest have been exterminated. We have kept these for research purposes mostly. They can’t escape.”
Brad nodded, “Don’t worry, the nervousness will fade. It’s all part of their thing. We think it’s the primal part of your brain trying to get through the fog and give off the right warning signals.”
They stepped through another door, out of the courtyard and into a small hallway, “And this concludes the tour and your first day. You’ll be getting the inoculation against them tomorrow, have to let some of the gunk get out of your system. So, how about we head to the pub for a pint? It helps get you over the jitters.”
Brad nodded, unsure of how else to answer, “Great, the company will pick up the tab. C’mon, grab your things and I’ll round up a few of the people you’ll be working with.”
Still feeling a little off, Brad followed Jeff as he started walking again, a bemused smile on his face.