“Hey, you alright?”
Nick opened his eyes to a dim swamp-green haze. He lurched to his feet, weaving his fists in the direction of the voice. Pain shot through his skull, and he grabbed the side of his head. His fingertips traced the edge of a sticky crater under his matted hair. His vision doubled and he staggered falling backward against iron bars. He slumped to the floor.
When Nick’s eyes opened again, he lay motionless. His body ached and the wound hiding under his hair throbbed. He studied his environment.
He was surrounded by cavernous walls glowing faintly with a blue phosphorescence. Heavy brackish fog snaked throughout the cave and disappeared into blackness at the far end. There was a sourness to the air making his eyes water. Thick oxidizing bars pressed against his spine blocking the only exit he saw. This was a cell, and he was the captive.
A man with greying skin and untamed white hair emerged from the recesses dragging a tattered blanket and humming to himself. Nick watched him scamper in and out of the darkness until he stopped and squatted at the edge of the shadows. He placed a tied bundle of fabric on the cave floor and worked the knot. Unfolding the loot, he pulled out a broken stick and set it aside, then he rummaged through a pile of yellowing bones. He lifted one, held it to his eye and peered through the shaft. He showed it to the stick and giggled, “Oh, it’s a good one.”
He secured the bundle and set it aside, then gently picked up the stick and carried it along with the bone and blanket to an outcropping of blue rock. He nestled the stick in the blanket next to him. He sniffed and turned the bone between his fingers. Placing it in his mouth, he rolled it back and forth like a fine cigar, every so often offering it to the stick.
The old man sucked and chewed at the bone. He shook it trying to dislodge the last bits of dried marrow at its center. Nick turned away in disgust.
The old man caught the movement and darted to Nick’s side.
“Hi,” he said, grinning, the scent of carrion wafting around him. Nick grimaced. The man pressed his papery skin against Nick. “I’m Hazen,” he said, nodding so fast Nick thought his head might pop off and roll across the floor. Hazen pressed his palms on the warm flesh of Nick’s arm and leaned closer.
“Get away from me. I don’t give a shit who you are.” He shoved Hazen backward. “Don’t touch me,” he growled. Hazen skidded across the rocky floor scrubbing the flesh off his knees. Nick jumped up and gripped the bars of the cell. “Someone better get down here, now!” Hazen dragged himself from the ground, stumbling.
“Stop,” he pleaded. He grabbed Nick’s hands pulling and prying at them.
“Hey, I know you’re down there!” Nick’s voice reverberated through the corridor.
“No, stop it, they’ll come. Be quiet,” Hazen tugged frantically at Nick’s arm. Nick rammed his elbow across Hazen’s cheekbone, blood splattered through the air as his skin split. Hazen dropped to the ground moaning and cupping the side of his face. Red seeped through his fingers and ran down his wrist. He rocked back and forth whimpering.
“Thought we could be friends,” he said looking his bloodied hands. He touched the wound on his face, wincing.
“Pathetic. There’s nothing I want from you,” Nick said glaring down at the crumpled body on the floor.
“But I know how to stay alive,” he whimpered. He gathered his stick and blanket and crawled into the shadows of the cave.
The wound on Hazen’s cheek had clotted and was a dry brown smear when he re-emerged from the back of the cave. He draped the tattered blanket over his shoulders as he moved along the cave wall, tannin tainted mist swirling in small eddies behind him.
Nick was still gripping the bars and staring down the corridor. He listened to the muffled whistling, stomping, and uproar of a crowd in the distance.
“What’s down there?”
Hazen kept one eye on Nick as he approached the front of the cage and peered through the bars.
“It’s the Game Room.”
“What the hell is the Game Room?”
“Can you remember, before here?” Hazen whispered as he pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and looked at Nick.
“Don’t mess with me,” Nick spat. Hazen shied and backed away.
“Look around. This isn’t Earth.” Hazen ran his hand over the sparkling blue cave wall.
“Make sense or I’ll crack the other side of your face.”
Hazen winced and paced the room. “Can’t we be friends?”
“You’ve already got one.”
Hazen looked at the stick in his hand. His voice thinned, “I been here a long time.” He picked at the wound on his cheek. “No one stays.” His hand trembled through his snarled hair as he paced the void in the center of the cave, his eyes darting. He raised the stick to his ear. He shook his head. “No…I can’t. It’s mine,” he whispered. His pace quickened as he argued under his breathe. A few moments later, he stopped and nodded. Hazen placed the stick on a glimmering outcrop of rock then walked toward Nick.
“Here,” Hazen stammered, “you… can have it.” The rotting blanket dangled from his hand like a prized pelt.
Nick slapped the offering to the ground. “Get that away from me!”
Hazen shrieked as the blanket sank to the mud. He pulled the blanket from the floor and stroked it against his cheek.
“I just want someone to talk to…another… person,” he whispered.
His focus drifted as he mumbled into the tattered fabric, “A silver lining…mom said find the silver lining.” He nodded, staring into the blackness at the back of the cave.
Nick grabbed him by the shoulder.
His vision cleared and he stared at Nick. “You have a choice,” he said, “you don’t have to go to the Game Room. Stay here. Stay with me.”
Nick dropped his grip and stormed back to the bars, bellowing down the corridor. Hazen stumbled to his side. “It’s not so bad here,” he rattled. His eyes jumped between Nick and the darkened hall, “stay…please.”
Nick’s demands boomed and echoed through the thick air and bounced off the hallway walls. “Stop, you got to stop,” Hazen pleaded. Nick shouted louder. Hazen slumped to the floor at Nick’s feet. “Please, don’t call them,” he moaned.
“It’s about damn time.” Nick glared at three advancing shadows against the hallway wall. “Results,” he said, and looked down at Hazen. The spot at his feet was vacant. He looked over his shoulder, but the old man was gone.
Nick dropped his grip on the bars as the figures drew close. The slick skin of their towering frames glistened in the pale light. Folds of skin connected their arms to their torso, like the wings of a bat, and rippled with their every step. Nick stared into the gaping hole hiding behind a mass of urchin-like tentacles dangling from the center of their faces. They spoke in clicks and snaps as they stared down at Nick with tiny coal spot eyes.
Nick backed away.
“Hazen?” He scanned the shadows behind him. The barred door swung open, and the creatures entered the cave. “Hazen!” Nick screamed and scrambled backward.
In one flowing movement, the creatures surrounded him with their fleshy wings and shoved him into the hallway. The door slammed shut.
Hazen pressed his hands over his ears until Nick’s screams faded down the corridor.
Nick peered down the grid that lie spread before him. He was the only human lined up for the game. All the players stood on the starting squares like pawns in a life size game of chess. He did not recognize any of the creatures assembled here, but he could tell they were also here against their will.
Nick turned his attention to the playing field. It reminded him of old coliseums he’d seen on television except the ground was divided into a giant checkerboard of colored squares. Some squares were yellow, some red, others were covered in a grassy mat, but most of the squares were made of textures he’d never seen before.
His thoughts turned to Hazen cowering on the floor muttering about staying alive. He had to find a way out, now. Blood surged through his legs, and he bolted from his square, heading for an archway twenty yards behind him. Before his third step touched turf, he slammed to the ground jolting and convulsing. A small black ball whizzed and circled above him, electricity zipping across its surface ready to strike again. Nick crawled back to his designated square.
As the crowd packed into the stands, they taunted and jeered the players. A whistle sounded and a hologram appeared. It demonstrated a mock game and a visual set of rules. Nick’s jaw tightened. The object was simple- get to the other end of the game board alive.
When the Grand Marshall, king or whatever it was called, rolled a multicolored die, the player that was up, had to move through the squares to that corresponding color. Easy enough, except according to the hologram half the squares held things that could kill you. The yellow squares, at least, were safe zones.
Violence erupted down the line, and Nick watched three electrified balls whiz past him. Another whistle blew and the crowd exploded. The game had begun.
Each player took their turn and stepped onto the squares. It was Nick’s turn and he looked to the Grand Marshall. Hazen was sitting at his feet.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Nick lunged toward the stands. A black ball snapped to attention spitting white hot sparks and drove him back to the game. He glared at Hazen.
Hazen buried his face in his blanket. “I tried to help,” he cried.
The Grand Marshall rolled the die. Nick made his choices and survived. Hazen watched each player as they advanced across the board. Bloody corpses littered the grid, and only a handful of players crossed the halfway line.
It was Nick’s turn again. He glared at Hazen then looked to the board. Hazen absently chewed his fingertips and rocked back and forth gripping his blanket. The Marshall rolled. Nick had to get to a rust-orange square.
He studied the board. His first two jumps were yellow squares, safe zones. He made the moves easily. Then he contemplated his options. The square in front was covered in weeds and grasses. The squares on either side of the grass were covered in a red powdery clay. He stared at the clay, then back to the grass. He wiped his forehead and stepped toward the clay on his right. He stopped. Something rippled below the surface. Two serpentine heads poked from the clay, hissed and spit venom at each other, then darted below the surface again and out of sight. Nick jumped to the grass and froze. Nothing happened.
Hazen sighed. The Marshall looked down at him, made a clicking noise then reached out his large smooth hand, and stroked Hazen’s head.
Nick still had another move to make to reach the orange square, but the end of the game board was in sight. Another roll and he would walk off the grid and deal with the old man. He should have warned him. He tightened his fists, glancing at Hazen sitting like a dog at that monster’s heels.
Nick let out a breath. Sweat rolled down his forehead and he wiped it away. The crowd hooted and stomped rattling the stands.
A red clay square was in front of him. To the left, the square bubbled with a pungent gel, the vapors burning his nostrils. He looked to the right. That square was a solid block of concrete. He looked at the red clay again and didn’t see any movement, but he didn’t trust it.
“Come on, come on…” Hazen whispered, chewing at his nails. Nick eyed the cement one more time then scowled at Hazen. He jumped, landing firmly in the center of the mortar.
Hazen’s mouth dropped. It happened so fast that Nick still had a smirk on his face when his body hit the ground. As his feet landed on the cement, laser wires sprang from below and sliced through his flesh. He hit the ground like a carcass in a slaughterhouse.
Hazen pulled the blanket tightly around his shoulders and rocked in the darkness of the cave. He heard them coming and looked up. The creatures chattered back and forth as they opened the cage door. They whistled and clicked in Hazen’s direction and slid a large bowl toward him.
Hazen poked through the gift, passing by black entrails and yellow leathery hide, until he saw the glint of crimson. Human muscle. He held it reverently as he gave thanks to his mama for teaching him to find the silver linings. He offered the first bite to the stick.
Roseanne Rondeau fell in love with sci-fi, ghosts, and speculative fiction at a very young age and enjoys writing these types of stories. She lives in New Hampshire with her family and has been published in Midnight Times, Alien Skin Magazine, and Nocturnal Lyric.