Tom focused, bringing his heart rate down.
The inside-out man reached the side of his table. Tom watched with barely-controlled revulsion as a hand reached out, towards his face.
His heart was now down to about 40 beats per minute. Conserve adrenaline, he thought to himself, and focused on doing so as the slimy, oozing hand touched his face.
The thing was talking. Tom looked at its face and saw it had no teeth. His eyes, adjusting to the lighting, flicked around the room and he saw some uniforms, uniforms just like his, held up and pinned to the wall and otherwise displayed for apparent study.
"You're one of my crew," he whispered.
The shuffling, dripping man paused, tilted his head, and appeared to struggle to talk. His tongue, somehow inside-out, too, did not work right and eventually the skull surrounded by a topographical map of a brain, with backwards eyeballs embedded deep within it, nodded.
**that is right**
Tom heard off to his left.
He turned slowly, deliberately, and looked, keeping as calm as he could. He would need the reserves of energy that random bursts of fear used up foolishly, and he could not do anything now filling his tied-up body with acids from useless bursts of activity.
He saw his first alien.
It nodded at him, and then nodded off to its left. Tiny wires embedded in the ceiling, the walls, the floors, and all the equipment pulsed and began to glow a pinkish-purple color, lighting the room with hues Tom found hard to see in. He could make out other shapes of other aliens beyond the one that had spoken to him in that crackly voice.
The aliens were not birdlike at all.
**does it frighten you** the alien asked Tom, with a gesture towards the inside-out crew member that stood next to him. Tom ignored him-- it-- for a moment while he tried to study the aliens, absorb everything he could learn about them as quickly as possible.
They appeared to be large shambling balls, almost. And he wasn't sure about the shambling. The aliens were almost perfectly round and Tom attributed the lack of perfect roundness to the gravity he could feel pulling him down, too. The one that had spoken to him had an eye in its center, staring at him, and a clawlike appendage not far from that eye, folded up, he could see, the claw attached to what was obviously an arm-like mechanism. He could not see the mouth and regretted that he had missed it when the thing spoke, but then it spoke again and he could see that it did not use a mouth at all to speak.
**does it frighten you** the thing asked again and Tom saw that several tiny little holes round its globelike body moved when it spoke, each producing a different part of the sound so that the words actually came out all at once, jumbled, almost: his brain was sorting them out quickly and assembling them into words, and he wondered if the alien knew that.
The thing moved forward, and it did so by rolling, edging forward and spinning so that the eye which had been centered on him pointed now down to his left towards the floor. Tom watched that eye close and the thing spin slightly so that a new eye was able to focus on him and the inside-out man at the same time. There were three appendages on this side but fewer of the speaking-holes. The voice sounded different - -more muted, whispery.
**we need to know** the alien said to Tom.
The inside-out man had, meanwhile, been ignored by Tom as he'd touched Tom's face and shoulder and arm, getting blood and various juices on him as his skeletal-muscular appendages had gripped and reached for Tom, the inside-out man being ignored by the aliens, who now moved even closer in the pinkish glow their light-tubes had created.
**are you consciously controlling your reactions** the alien asked him. It was unable to make any inflections in its voice. Tom had to work to sort out that this was a question, the more complicated sentence being harder to work out.
**we need to know** his interrogator said again. **so we don't have to do that to you**
Io17 is a serialized story; if you're new to it, you might want to begin at the beginning by clicking here to get to the table of contents.
Tom did not scream, and felt proud about that. But he wanted to. The moment the lights came on, the moment he realized that the thing in front of him was a human but a human inverted, ripped open and curled back on itself, he felt bile rise in his throat and his eyes widen. It was something that he knew would be stored in the primitive part of his brain to give him involuntary shivers in the future, when he least expected it.
If he had a future.
The thing -- the human? but barely -- shuffled forward, and Tom watched it. He did not pull on his restraints or try to get away; he already knew that he could not and so he forced his muscles to be calm, intentionally controlling them the way he and others could, sometimes. Tom had learned early on in his life that he could do that, that he was maybe more advanced than some people in that most people think they can control their muscles but they can't, really -- they do things they think to do but they drop things, small things and big things, they bump into things and they stub their toes and they burn their fingers.
Tom had never done those things. Tom had never dropped anything accidentally. He had not ever tripped. He had not ever burnt his finger or hand.
One of his earliest memories, in fact, was of his mother in the kitchen, cooking soup. He had been helping her, standing up on a stool to mix in ingredients on the stove. While the stove top did not get hot because of magnetic induction, the soup was heating up and had just begun boiling and he had told his mother that.
She had said "I'm sure it's not boiling yet," but Tom had been sure because he could see the soup and she could not. But he was young and wanted to believe his mom, so he stuck his finger into the soup just as his mom turned around and saw the bubbling broth.
Tom remembered what happened next: His mom had yelled, raised her voice, one of the rare times she had done so, telling him don't do that but before she even got the words out, Tom was aware of several other things: His finger was in the soup, and he felt tiny little jolts, back and forth. His mind almost seemed to light up in several different areas and Tom thought lift the finger and he did, pulling it out of the soup before his mom had even said don't. Tom could hear the individual sounds that made up the word landing on his ear drop:
but his finger was already out of the soup, and he licked the broth off of it and looked at her as the rest of her words landed
"Why?" he asked, and she took his hand, looked at the finger, at the pot boiling ferociously on the stove now, and back at his finger.
"That's going to blister," she said, but looked doubtful. "You shouldn't touch hot things, Tommy!" she scolded, but her heart wasn't in it, he could tell, even then, even as little as he was, and then, for some reason, she looked again at the finger and then around, fearfully, at the walls and the floors and then the ceiling. Her eyes lingered a long time up on the ceiling and she bent down to hug him. "It's going to blister and you should be more careful, Tommy!" she picked him up and put her mouth right by his ear as she spoke and carried him to the faucet and said "Let's rinse that don't you ever tell anyone about this ever at the faucet and put some cream on it."
And he hadn't told.
He'd gotten the message with only a few more repetitions, and only one real warning. Once, at about age 7, he'd been playing baseball with the other kids, and he'd been up to bat. The pitcher had begun to wind up, and someone on the bench, one of the other kids on the team, had said "It's a sinker, Tommy!" as the pitcher had started. Tom heard that the way he heard everything when he wanted to concentrate, broken down and slower and giving him time to think through every impulse, and he'd even had time to dart his eyes at the bench and see the kid who'd spoken, he couldn't remember his name now, but he also saw the coach, and every other adult he could see, staring at the kid who'd spoken, and the Coach, as the ball approached Tom, had said
"Lucky guess!" to the kid, and Tom had been so befuddled by their behavior that he'd not swung at the pitch, which he easily could have hit. He'd struck out, and the remainder of the game had the same feeling as his mom the day of the soup: The kids kept going, but the grown-ups had seemed to be play-acting at rooting them on, and the next day that kid was gone. And now Tom couldn't remember his name.
Only 1 or 2 more times in his life had his mom or dad had to whisper to him don't show it and he learned to hide, as best he could, the superfast reaction times that let him realize his finger was in danger of being burnt and pull it out before the scalding water could actually hurt his finger, and other amazing feats.
And he was never disappeared and had managed to get shipped off to Mars, where he now had been kidnapped and was staring at a human being who could scarcely be described as such.