Herman was alone.
But then again, Herman was always alone.
He had no family, no friends. No one to call and ask how his day was. No one to come over and borrow a cup of sugar or chat about the latest ball game.
Then again there was no more sugar.
There were no more ball games.
Still, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to.
There had been a cat once; he’d talked to the cat. A mangy yellow thing with only one eye, he hadn’t been any good at carrying on a conversation. But he had been a listener. Oh, how he’d listen.
Herman would set out a plate of something–some sort of meat if he could find it–whatever came to hand if he couldn’t. He’d set it out and that cat would come up slowly until he was a few feet away. Then he’d stop, waiting for Herman to move out of the way so that he might enjoy the meal in peace.
Once he moved, the cat would close in on whatever morsel Herman had managed to scrounge up, as if a lion on the hunt.
It didn’t matter to that matted yellow ball of fur that he only had one eye. It didn’t matter that one of his hind legs didn’t work so well. For just a few minutes, he was king of his domain.
Oh how Herman hated that cat.
But one thing he’d learned long ago was to take what you could. If that meant talking to a cat… well, that was that.
Then one day the cat stopped coming.
When Herman had gone out on his morning rounds, there had been a particularly choice specimen of vermin lying there in one of his traps. Hardly deformed at all.
At first, he’d considered taking it for himself. He’d heard that if you cooked it right, rat tasted just like chicken. Not that he remembered what chicken tasted like, but it was the thought that counted.
But no, he wasn’t quite to rat yet. There were still dozens of cans of beans stashed down in the cellar underneath his shack. And if beans were getting a little monotonous… well, there was always the scrap of land he called his garden. Occasionally, he could still eke out a stunted carrot or gnarled potato.
In any case, he had the rat and he couldn’t very well let it go to waste. Waste not, want not, after all. Although there was plenty in the way of wanting it seemed, no matter how careful he was.
So he’d taken the rat and laid it out for that yellow demon. It had been days since he’d last seen it, but that wasn’t unusual. It was a cat after all. Cats were solitary creatures.
Perhaps that’s why he hated cats so much. Because in a way, they were little more than an echo of himself.
But the cat hadn’t come.
He waited for an hour, two, just sitting there, watching the rat.
It didn’t do anything, of course; it had expired long before he’d gotten to it.
But he stared anyways, with the blank eyes of one with nothing better to do.
Then it was dark. Time for dinner. Not the rat of course, that was for the cat–it if hadn’t been eaten in turn.
He’d briefly wondered what cat tasted like. Eating cat was better than rat, wasn’t it? But no, he wasn’t there yet either.
Because he had beans. Plenty of beans.
The next day, he laid the rat out again. And the day after that. By the third day, it was moving well past rat, far into the hard-to-pick-up stage. Yet still no cat.
He looked at the rat. The rat couldn’t look back of course, after all, its eyes were gone. Between one day and the next, they’d just vanished. Perhaps one of its brothers had come along and taken them. Who knows what a rat might do with four eyes instead of two.
But it was over. The cat wasn’t coming. The cat would never come again, it turned out. But Herman didn’t know that yet. All he knew was the rat was rotting and he’d best be rid of it.
That third day, he took the rat out to the very edge of his land. There was a drop off there, dropping down a hundred feet or more to what Herman vaguely recollected used to be a river.
But of course the water had been gone as long as Herman could remember. He could barely even remember what it had looked like. All that was left was this feeling.
There had been a river down there once.
But then again, there had been a cat once. So it went.
Tossing the rat over the cliff, he watched it descend down towards the cracked soil below. He watched it crunch into a dozen pieces when it hit the floor, what little blood it had left spraying outwards.
For a fraction of a second, the river ran again–ran red.
Then it was done.
The remains of the rat were as still and dry as the riverbed they lay on.
Herman stared for a while longer; little more than an occasional flicker of a thought crossing his mind.
After some amount of time Herman shook his head once, slowly, from side to side, almost if awakening from a standing slumber. Turning to head back to his shack, he glanced down for one final look at the rat.
That’s when Herman had his first surprise in some time.
The rat was gone.
He could clearly see the spot where the rat had been as a faint reddish brown blotch in the dust. But no rat.
Herman didn’t like strange. Strange things had a tendency of upsetting what little balance he’d managed to eke out in an all too upset world.
He glared down at the riverbed, still half turned away, considering. It had to have been some sort of predator. Something living down there that had come out and eaten the rat. Had to have been.
He tried to remember what there was that would eat three day dead rat. Nothing came right to mind, but nowadays perhaps the better question might have been what wouldn’t eat the rat?
Animals needed to eat just as he did and they didn’t have a cellar full of beans, now did they.
But something had taken the rat.
Whatever it was, Herman couldn’t very well see it from up here and he didn’t dare go down there. So really, it didn’t matter what it was.
Really. It didn’t.
He turned the rest of the way and started back, but all the way he could feel eyes on the back of his neck. The eyes of the thing that had taken the rat, he was sure of it. Watching. Waiting. Waiting to take him too.
Herman quickened his pace. First to a brisk walk, then to an almost jog. On more than one occasion, he thought he saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. But when he looked, there was nothing to see. He was nearly running when he reached his shack.
When he shut the door behind him, he caught a glimpse of the world behind him. He could see the path almost the entire way back to the river.
Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever it was, it was watching him even then.
Days passed. A week. And as they did, Herman could feel himself slowly descending into madness.
The sensation of being watched didn’t pass, no matter how often he surveyed his domain. From time to time, he swore he saw that same flicker of movement in the corner of his eye.
Sometimes it seemed small–small enough to make him think of that mangy stray. It was strange to think he missed it. No matter how he’d hated it, it had been a friend of sorts to him.
Sometimes it seemed larger–as tall as a man, taller even than Herman himself. Yet when he turned, there was nothing there. The feeling started to grow that whatever it was, it was smart. Smart enough to stay just barely out of sight.
From time to time, there would be some sound out of the ordinary. Herman would freeze in place, sure that the unseen watcher had finally chosen to reveal itself.
Nothing. Not a sight, not a sound, nothing that he could definitively attribute to a hidden presence.
But it didn’t matter. Herman knew the truth. Herman knew that he was no longer alone.
Perhaps a week after the rat had first disappeared, Herman made up his mind. He was going down there. He was going to find out what had taken the rat.
It didn’t take him long to prepare. There was little to take other than two long ropes–just in case–and his rifle, which he pulled down from the wall and slung across his back.
He rarely used the rifle anymore, too many unfortunate memories. Memories of times before. Mostly he preferred traps. But today was different. Today he took the rifle.
When he made it to the riverbed, some part of him told him that he’d better not look down or he’d see the rat again far below. That all of this worry over the past week had been in his head. That he was going mad, as they’d all said he would.
Of course they’d all ended up dead rather than mad, so what did they know.
So he looked over the edge.
The rat was still gone.
Honestly, he wasn’t sure if that was actually better after all.
He hooked the first rope to a twisted stump of a tree, one of the few left in the area. The branches felt brittle–one broke off at his touch–but the trunk itself seemed stable enough. The other, he fastened around a rock, twisting an extra length around a natural anchor.
That was one thing he’d learned quickly enough: always be prepared for the worst. If one rope snapped on his way down, he’d have the other. If either the tree or the rock proved as unfaithful as the men he’d used to know… well, it paid to be prepared.
He was ready. It was time.
Standing on the edge, he slowly lowered himself into a sitting position before he began rappelling down the face of the cliff. It had been a long time since he’d last gone down a cliff quite like this–back during his childhood, back when the world was a happier place. But like they always said, it came back easily.
Left foot, right foot. Adjust the rope. Left foot, right foot.
Before he knew it, he was more than halfway down to the dry riverbed below. Pausing to catch his breath, he glanced down. He knew the common saying–”don’t look down”–but heights really didn’t bother him.
Anyways, if he fell, he would most likely die immediately. Failing that, he would be crippled to the point where he’d be unable to climb back to his shack. At least in that case, there was a good chance that he would learn what it was that had taken the rat. That was something at least.
Then a flash, a glimpse of movement in the corner of his eye. There was something down there, something big. Something fast.
But by the time he’d looked, there was nothing. Not even a trace of dust to mark it’s passing. The lack of dust was enough to make him doubt himself. With the weather as it had always been, everything that moved kicked up a trail of dust.
But there was no dust. No movement.
Herman stared down at the ground for a few moments more, then shrugged. He’d seen those shadows before and not once had whatever it was materialized. And he’d already come this far after all; at this point he felt that he deserved some answers. So he started down once more.
When he finally reached the bottom, it came as something of a surprise. He’d been so focused on listening that he’d shifted to autopilot. He marveled that he’d managed to not misplace his feet even once, as disastrous as that could have been. But he’d made it. He was down.
Standing and loosening the ropes around his waist, he stretched. He didn’t like how his limbs and spine crackled the way they did, but how he’d been sitting on the way down it would be worse if he didn’t.
Mid-stretch, he noticed the cave.
Frozen in place, at first he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. There was a cave no more than a few dozen feet from where he was standing, almost directly into the stone wall from where he’d dropped the rat. But the cave itself wasn’t the strange part; the strange part was what was inside. Just beyond the lip of the entrance, Herman could see a steel wall, shining with a faint gleam that he hadn’t seen in years.
Herman could barely believe his eyes. Without the ability to make more, stainless steel was rare, particularly in such a large quantity. Creeping forward, he half expected the wall to vanish like a mirage, fading away like so much of the world before it.
Yet it stayed, as solid and resolute as ever.
When he got within five feet, he stopped. From here, he could see that the wall wasn’t as solid as he’d thought. Rather, it looked to be two pieces, a larger outer piece and an upright rectangle fit so carefully he hadn’t been able to discern the seam.
A stainless steel doorway…
With such an extravagant entrance, he could scarcely imagine what lay inside?
His original purpose forgotten, Herman dropped the barrel of his rifle ever so slightly and took a step forward. Another. One more and he there.
Up close, he it was even more impressive. Other then a hint of a seam that, the two were perfectly smooth. Not so much as a hinge or a handle showed, yet he remained convinced that it was a doorway. It just felt right.
Yet, without door or handle, how was he to get in? For the first time in a long time, a part of Herman was awakening–his curiosity.
Carefully, he reached up with one hand, pausing an inch from the steel of the door.
As he did, a small patch of light appeared on the door under his hand. Perfectly square and perhaps six inches to a side, it glowed a faint blue color, coming from no source that Herman could see.
Before he could marvel at this light with seemingly no source, a woman’s voice began to speak.
Herman was so startled by the sound, he nearly dropped his rifle. It had been so long since he’d last heard a human voice–particularly a woman’s. He may have had a good listener in that orange pest–up until a week or so ago anyways–but that was nothing compared to this.
It didn’t matter that he couldn’t make out a single word she was saying–her words slurred as if around a mouthful of mush–all that mattered was that he was not alone.
“Hello?” Herman’s voice was little more than a croak. He realized that he hadn’t spoken for more than a week, not since that cat. Like any tool, the longer one went without using their voice, the longer it took to return to service. “Hello?” he tried again, with only marginally more success.
If she could hear him, she made no sign. She just kept talking in that mushy way of hers. At one point, the panel of light brightened briefly, flashing three times from a soft blue to a pale green. But the panel didn’t matter to Herman, all that mattered was that voice. That wonderful voice…
When the voice abruptly ceased no more than a minute later, it was as if the world were coming to an end. Again. Somewhere deep down, Herman had known that it would have to end–all things did–yet until that moment, he’d allowed himself to believe that this one time would be different. This one time, it could be good.
“No!” he cried out, his voice still rough but this time more from emotion than lack of use. “Come back! Please, come back!”
“No…” Herman sank to the ground in front of the door, banging his head against the lit panel. It was all he had left to associate with that angelic voice so abruptly taken from him.
As he did, there was a faint chime. A single tone, as crisp and pure as Herman had ever heard. Then, the light too was gone.
Herman collapsed, falling into a sitting position before the door, not caring if whatever had taken the rat–he’d come to be sitting almost exactly where the rat had lain, but he didn’t realize that–came to take him as well.
And then the door opened.
Just like that–sliding smoothly back then off to one side–the cave was opened to him, a smooth hallway beckoning to him. As he watched, lights came on along the ceiling. Real electric lights and not just relics either. These looked almost new.
With his eyes wide and his gun nearly forgotten at his side, Herman walked through the doorway.
Along the hall, doors led off to either side. They each had the same lack of handle or hinges, yet some of had windows.
In one room, Herman saw a curious structure, not unlike a Christmas tree of times long gone except silver with a metallic shine, producing a faint humming sound that set his teeth on edge.
In another, a line of cats stood perfectly still against one wall, each different. They couldn’t possibly be alive, not with how still they stood, yet Herman had never seen such clever fakes.
But he couldn’t stop, he had to go on. The next room was the first open door he’d seen. Just a crack, but with no window the only way that he was going to know what was inside was to walk in. For better or for worse, it didn’t take long for his newly awakened curiosity to get the better of him.
He walked inside, coming face to face with a dozen separate views that seemed all too familiar. The riverbed. The cliff face. His garden. His shack. Each seemed to have a different perspective, some low to the ground, some higher. Many were still images, but a few–the shack in particular–seemed to be live, the faint motion of the wind giving them away.
It was the last view in particular that bothered him. It was a low shot, mostly of the ground but also of a piece of board on the ground. A piece of board heaped high with a pile of beans. He remembered that board, those beans. He’d given them to that mangy cat not so very long ago. Right before it disappeared. The picture was from the cat’s point of view.
Yet, with nothing of particular interest happening on the videos and no controls of any sort to be seen–not even the glowing panels from before–there was little for Herman to do but watch. He was a good watcher, not easily bored, but there were just so many more rooms. With one last glance around, he sighed and turned back to the hallway.
At the fourth, Herman had to stop and stare. An operating table, the like of which he’d only seen in his youth, stood in the center of the room. Not so very unusual by itself, it was its occupant that gave him pause.
It was the rat. That same rat he’d watched decay from barely dead to barely solid. That same rat that he’d tossed onto the riverbed far below. He could tell it was the same, as it was just as splattered and somewhat flattened as one would expect, given all it had been through.
Yet there it was, laid out in seemingly meticulous detail, with metal devices pulling back what was left of its skin. Herman shuddered. Well, now he knew what had happened to the rat. But this time he was sure–sometimes it was better not to know.
He was still staring when the woman’s voice from the doorway returned, “You’re not supposed to be here you know.”
He didn’t even think to question that he could understand this time. The mushy accent was gone.
“What–where–who–” Try as he might, he couldn’t manage to string two words together. Too many thoughts, too many questions, all crowded together.
“You were supposed to have another six months–” She sounded as if she were talking to herself. Try as he might, Herman couldn’t determine where the voice was coming from. Everywhere and nowhere all at once. “–no matter. We can do this now.”
“Do what?” he managed. But before there was time for a response, he heard the sound of regular, almost metallic footfalls coming down the hall.
He spun towards the sound to find himself face to face with a machine. Stainless steel but worked in a way that he’d never seen before, it had the shape of a man but with two black gems where its eyes should have been and sharp looking steel claws rather than hands.
“What are you–get away from me–”
But nothing Herman said could dissuade it. With a strength far greater than Herman could even dream of, it reached out with those claws and took him by the arms, pinning them to his sides and lifting him straight off the ground. He heard more than felt his rifle dropping to the ground.
Herman tried to kick, but he had no more luck than kicking a stone. The machine was unyielding. Turning to the room with the rat, it paused for a moment. The door slid open.
“Don’t you struggle now–” The woman’s voice came from all around, oddly patronizing now. “–it will all be over soon.”
If anything, her words only made Herman fight harder. No longer was hers the voice of an angel, but rather a demon sent straight from hell to torment him. If only he could get free…
With no more effort than it would have taken Herman to lift that cat, the machine hoisted him onto the table, turning him as it did so. Then, without the least bit of care, it dropped him.
Herman had only a moment to remember just what was beneath him before he felt the sharp pain and sudden squelch of the rat and those thin metal devices meeting his back. For a split second, he was free, the metal beast’s arms dangling overhead. Then, lightning quick, one arm clamped over Herman’s chest, pinning him down.
It was all he could do not to scream. The thing had a hold like a vice. His legs were free, but it still didn’t do him a bit of good.
The thing pulled out a knife with his other hand. That’s when Herman started to scream.
He was still screaming when it cut into him, as careful as only a machine could be, cutting his chest down to his crotch. The pain was incredible; all he could do was scream one last word, “WHY?” But if the machine understood, it made no note, just kept cutting right away, pulling away the flesh from his rib cage an inch at a time.
Herman heard the woman’s voice, one last time before he was gone. “It’s such a pity too–” she was saying. She seemed to be talking to someone else now, another someone that Herman could not see. “Oh well.”