Time for another one of my not-winner flash fiction entries. For this one, the prompt gave us the first line (“They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise”) and the last line (“They command attention, leaving their spectators breathless.”). We had to fill the part in the middle. I immediately thought of a zoo-type setting, but wanted to twist it around so that the “breathless” part was literal. Blood and mayhem, baby. I didn’t care for it at first, but by the end I was okay with what I had written. Definitely not my strongest, but I’ve usually struggled getting to the action part, so it was nice for that part to come out okay.
Of course, I was really annoyed when I was 2/3 of the way through and all of a sudden realized that the first and last line were in present tense…
NOT QUITE GILLIGAN
They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. At least that’s how it appears to their spectators.
The zoo’s visitors gasp as one through the plexiglass that is not quite plexiglass. One of the graceful specimens comes up a little short on this particular soar, and begins a plummet toward the soft grass canopy that doubles as their bedding. The anti-gravitational boosters kick in. The spectators learned the hard way that these specimens do not recover from a fall as easily as the research indicates.
“Why the hell did they give us branches to jump around on?” Chuck asks, sitting up and wiping grass off his tunic.
“We’re primates,” Arthur says, still sitting in the branch above. “They didn’t bother to classify us beyond monkeys.”
“I thought they were supposed to be super smart. They can’t even tell the difference between humans and goddamn monkeys?”
“Would you know the difference between a greyhound and a bulldog?”
“No, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feed Meow Mix to a friggin’ lion.”
Chuck stands back up. Experience tells him that the mild electric tingling he is currently feeling will grow to a legitimate shock and beyond unless he leaves = the grassy canopy. The zoo is open, and during opening hours, they can’t be allowed to rest out of sight. The show happens up on the branches.
He walks over to the nearest tree that is not quite a tree. It looks like wood and acts like wood, but it doesn’t feel like wood. The best route up is a ladder embedded into its back. The spectators don’t seem to notice, or don’t seem to care, how their specimens climb up to the observational branches.
“At least that bought me another ten minutes before I have to make another leap.”
“And what are you going to do with it?” Arthur asks, standing up on his own branch and preparing to make a leap of his own. He flips his foot backward and grasps his ankle, stretching his hamstring. “Flip them the bird again?”
“I just might,” Chuck says, cracking his knuckles and wiggling his fingers toward the customers as if he is a wizard preparing to cast a spell on them instead of throwing up a universal signal that is not quite universal.
“You might as well fling your poo at them.”
Arthur leaps from one branch to the next, soaring with a bit more poise and grace than usual. Seeing a fellow captive stumble often has that effect on the next few leaps. It’s nature to relax a bit on a mundane task, until you are reminded how easily it can be made un-mundane.
“If I thought my poo would get through to those a-holes, I would,” Chuck says. “But it would just splatter on the plexiglass, and I don’t need a reminder that I’m in a cage.”
No one responds, so Chuck feels an impulse to continue.
“Besides, it would probably disintegrate in their poisonous atmosphere. No effect whatsoever except for me with a bunch of dingleberries left in my hand.”
Chuck laughs. He knows he’s made a good one, and screw the rest of the humans if they don’t like it. Besides, they’re all minding their own business. The zookeepers don’t like much fraternizing between the specimens. But Chuck’s already been buzzed once this hour, what’s the harm in getting another tingle?
“Their atmosphere isn’t poisonous,” Arthur responds. “We could breathe it.”
“How the hell do you know that? You been holding out some laptop or something?”
“Not at all. They come in to feed us, clean out our cages.”
Chuck says nothing. No one says anything.
“And what do they have with them when they do?” Arthur probes, enjoying the upper hand.
“Cattle prods and shit.”
“And what don’t they have?”
“Qgrxry.” A disembodied, synthetic voice garbles from the air above, a sound all of the humans have become well aware of. They learned quickly to understand the subtle nuance of an alien language.
James, the third male prisoner, shakes out of his forlorn spot near the front of the cage, and turns to leap away from the spectators.
“Hey numbnuts, qgrxry doesn’t mean jump. It means-,”
“QGRXRY!” The voice booms everywhere, a god that is not quite a god.
“Silence,” Chuck mutters under his breath, refusing to let E.T. get the last word, but not wanting another shock. His internal bravado meets external reality.
James leaps. Layla leaps. Before too long, it’s Chucks turn to once again leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. This time, he even manages to stick the landing, one branch away from Arthur.
“I’ll bite.” Chuck tries to look like he is only absorbed in his own thoughts, muttering under his breath. “What don’t they have?”
Chuck picks his nose for effect. He saw a real chimpanzee do it at a real zoo once. He twirls it in between his fingers, acts like he’s talking to the booger.
“They don’t have any environmental protection. The zookeepers look the same as the spectators. If they can breathe the air in here, we can breathe the air out there.”
Chuck pops the booger in his mouth. For effect, of course.
“Not bad, professor. Now can you turn a coconut into a radio and fix the fucking boat?”
Arthur just shakes his head at the amazingly failed allusion. It’s his turn to leap away, and he is all too happy to do it.
Chuck steps up to stretch, and leaps in the opposite direction long before any sort of warning can come from above. A couple times a day, he varies his schedule. Got to keep them on their toes, he thinks. He imagines some bureaucrat alien staring at a spreadsheet, trying to make rhyme or reason of the exercise habits of humans.
Plus this time, he has an idea brewing. The first person he encounters is Layla.
“So if he’s the professor, I guess that makes you Mary Ann. I mean, not that I’d like to see you in a halter top or anything, no offense.”
“None taken,” Layla responds. “I wouldn’t show you my halter top if you were the last… Come to think of it, you are one of the last three, and I still won’t show you.”
“Not the last three on Earth, toots. Earth’s still out there, with plenty of humans on it, and I’m starting to concoct a plan.”
“Oh, sweet Jesus. Try not to get us all killed in the-,”
“GRZYXR,” the disembodied voice calls. Chuck clenches, but then relaxes. It isn’t the silence command, and he was planning on leaping away, anyway. He lands near James.
“Hey Gilligan, I got a plan. Sorry, Jimbo, but I figure, if we’ve got the professor and Mary Ann, and clearly I’m the Skipper, that leaves you as Gilligan. You don’t strike me as much of a Thurston Howell type. Do you mind if I call you Gilligan, Jimbo?”
James looks up, then immediately looks away. He likes neither Gilligan nor Jimbo, so he plots his next two leaps, hoping to get far away, fast. Of the four prisoners, he interacts the least, choosing to perfect his leaping and posing ability in hopes of being promoted.
“So I figure if they can breathe, then we can take their breath away, right? And I don’t mean in some cheesy eighties pop-rock sorta way. I mean kill ’em. Dead. Breathless. Although that sounds like eighties cheese, too. Tin roof rusted, and all that.”
James is astonished, and more than a little ashamed, that not only does he understand all of Chuck’s pop culture references, but the idea behind his misguided drivel, too. Chuck thinks he has a plan. It is not quite a plan, but it is, at least, an idea.
“Okay, so at the next feeding time, and man I hope we’re getting mac and cheese tonight.” Chuck pauses for a moment, thinking of the blue box of Kraft goodness that they’ve somehow perfected on this far away planet. “But at the next feeding time, we-“
James leaps from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. Chuck has to admit that, of all of them, Jimbo has the most grace and poise. Even if he seems to jump away at the wrong commands. Doesn’t seem to know his Qgrxry from his Grzyxr, if Chuck is honest about faults. But he’s a damned fine physical specimen, and he should do well as front-line cannon fodder like the Gilligan he is.
“They brought an egghead and a stud,” Chuck mutters under his breath, a compulsion he often feels after the Qgrxry command. “Then there’s me, the streetwise guy. And the girl rounds it out as a foil, like any good story. Stand by Me, right? No wait, there was no chick in Stand by Me. What’s the other one? Oh yeah, It.”
The four specimens continue to leap in silence. If the bureaucrat with the spreadsheet is paying close attention, he might see a spike in their leaps from branch to branch, although the bureaucrat, not actually in the vicinity of the four humans, would fail to note their additional grace and poise. They leap with a vigor, with a purpose, that they have not had in ages.
While they command the attention of their spectators, their own attention is in a different direction. They leap for different vantage points, always mindful of the entrance. From each direction, the entrance looks the same. No hidden trick, a simple portal that leads to a hallway beyond. An airlock, the chance of breathing true air laying beyond. Although each human, apart from Chuck, rues the man who brought the idea to their attention, they cannot deny the merits of the idea. James and Layla and Arthur share glances with each other as they pass each other in silence. Eventually, they must even share their upraised eyebrows in with the malcontent. Everybody needs to be on the same page.
Not that it matters. The box is open, Pandora is free. Chuck is going to bum-rush the first alien motherfucker that walks through that portal, come hell or high water. The other humans were either going to let him fail, and be guilty by association, or help him succeed. It is no choice at all. No more soaring. It’s time for breathless.
Feeding time always comes with anticipation, a moment to be human instead of spectacle. The anticipation of this particular Chgrchx, however, rivals all since their first one, when they weren’t yet sure if their captors could even produce human food. For the first time since that feeding, their survival is again in the balance when the zookeepers walk through the door.
Chuck knows the timing. He arcs through the grass, seemingly random but always with a direct line toward the door. If he is correct, he will be directly in front when they appear. Of course, he is correct. There is nothing to learn in this cell except for the timing between a Qgrxry or a Grzyxr or a Chgrchx and its insequential action, like a primitive culture knowing that the Winter Solstice sunrise will shine through a pillar. And when this Winter Solstice of a feeding comes shining through this particular Stonehenge, Chuck is ready to pounce.
He runs right at the alien, shoulder lowered. The alien is unarmed, holding only a tray with four plates of macaroni and cheese. Chuck’s shoulder makes contact with the tray, slamming it up into the chest that is not quite a chest. The alien stumbles backward, one step, then two, and is about to regain its footing when the second wave hits.
Chuck is vaguely surprised that it is Layla, not James or Arthur, that steps in from the alien’s left. Not a full step, only a half step. Only enough to prevent the alien’s third step, the one that would plant and pivot its gravity back forward, from landing on the grass. The alien’s tottering becomes a sprawl, and the alien sprawls backward through the portal, a spray of neon-orange pasta somersaulting through the air the only proof it had been in this location at all.
“Could’ve waited till the armed guards were in first,” says James, still poised on the branch closest to the door.
“Now what the hell do we do?” Arthur asks, already winded from running in on a diagonal course.
“The portal’s still open,” Layla says, returning upright and attempting to avoid being covered in macaroni. “Do we just run through it?”
“But we know there will be armed guards right behind the-,” Arthur starts.
“We keep the element of surprise,” Chuck says, and barrels into the around the corner into the hallway beyond.
Chuck doesn’t have the element of surprise anymore. Two shock sticks ignite simultaneously, one on each side. Thousands of volts course through his body. Chuck drops to his knee.
Layla kicks out again, this time higher up, knocking one shock stick away. Chuck can at least breathe, but even one shock stick is enough to immobilize him.
James aims his leap at the other weapon, but instead of kicking out at it, he grapples for it. The force of gravity, combined with the element of surprise, gives him enough leverage to seize the stick from the alien body he is tangled with. He rolls onto the ground, a move he was not capable of before his years of forced gymnastics, and comes set as the other two humans follow into the hallway.
Layla kicks again, this time in the direction of a groin that is not quite a groin, incapacitating the alien she had just disarmed. Arthur, in typical Arthur fashion, does not break a sweat as he walks through the portal. He picks up the shock stick the picks up the shock stick Layla kicked out of the first alien’s grasp. He thinks about brandishing it himself, but realizes that would make him a target. Instead, he hands the weapon to Chuck.
Chuck tries to stand, but can only get to his knees. He grabs the weapon and nods his thanks to the nerd. He wheezes and coughs, and pretends the air smells so different now, even if it is stuffier in the hallway than in their cage. He is trying, once again, to find his footing when a new sound comes from the next room.
It is not a new sound, entirely. It is a sound the humans are all too familiar with, but have not heard for years. The click, chink, chunk, of a gun being loaded. And not a gun-that-is-not-quite-a-gun, but an honest-to-goodness, steel assault rifle.
Chuck tries to stand once again. He wants to press the advantage. He knows the cause is lost if they wait until the machine gun makes its way into view. One foot up, dragging his knee behind, he takes one step, that is not quite a step, forward. He uses the shock stick not as a weapon, but as a crutch, dragging himself toward his adversary and his freedom.
Chuck never hears the bracka-bracka-bracka that slices through his body. He is breathless before he even sees the lone gunman, a cowering, diminutive zookeeper that had probably been staring at spreadsheets two moments before.
Chuck doesn’t know that James had already gotten into a defensive position next to the doorway, much as the two aliens guards had lain in wait for him, moments ago. He is long gone before James uses that shock stick to fell the alien and upgrade to an assault rifle. Not that it would have done Chuck any good to be in on the plan. One human was going to be the cannon fodder.
“He never knew he was Gilligan,” says Layla, grabbing a gun of her own from the second room. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”
Arthur smiles at the reference. “Old Charles would be so sad to know you waited until he was gone before making a Die Hard reference.”
“That’s why I waited.”
There are only two guns, just as there are only two shock sticks. For emergency purposes only. This is a zoo, after all. The zookeepers, the spectators, even the guards, scarcely need a gun.
“So what do we do now?” James asks.
Arthur ponders for a moment.
“We fight for as long as we can. If we can make it to a spaceport, so much the better. But failing that, we take as many of those spectators with us as possible. They are just as guilty as the one who captured us. Agreed?”
Layla cocks her gun. James cocks his gun. Both nod.
The three humans break out of their confinement. They emerge, guns blazing, into the crowd of zoo-goers.
They command attention, leaving spectators breathless in their presence.