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2.

“Yuck! This tastes gross.” She made a face, before taking another spoonful. Her expression clearly showed the second spoonful’s taste was not much better than the first.

I looked at her plate, where chocolate, pepper, butter, yogurt, mangoes and cocaine liberally covered a pancake that was, by now, soggy enough to be drunk rather than eaten.

“Gee, I can’t imagine why,” I said, sarcasm coating my words as liberally as chocolate syrup and maple syrup coated her pancake. “One would think cocaine-flavoured pancakes would taste great.”

“Oh, the cocaine doesn’t taste like much,” she commented dismissively. “It’s pretty pure stuff, no plaster or chalk added for bulk, so the flavor isn’t so bad.” She took another spoonful and grimaced. “I think it’s the melted butter and mango. These two don’t taste that great together.”

“Why did you put them in your plate then?” I asked, taking a bite of my pancakes, which had only butter and bacon in them. They tasted wonderful.

“Oh, I wanted it to taste bad,” she clarified, nonchalantly taking another bite. She made a face, but forced herself to finish chewing before finally swallowing it.

“That sounds like a bullshit excuse,” I said, frowning while gesturing with my fork. “It’s ok to admit it, you know. You’re terrible with food. It’s ok, I won’t judge you.”

“No bullshit,” she denied with a chuckle, looking up from her plate. “Crappy food is as valid an experience as great food.Maybe for you it feels different, I do not blame you for that. Humans always search for as many pleasant experiences as they can. It’s the way you were wired, after all. But when you see things from my perspective, living forever and having countless experiences and lives within me, then you would understand that even terrible food has its place in the world.”

“Deep,” I mumbled through a mouthful of croissant.

She took another spoonful of hers, swallowed and gagged, eyes shut tight with the effort of keeping her food down. “Wow,” she gasped. “I’m plumbing new depths of horrible taste here. This is amazing.”

“If you say so,” I said, with a skeptical frown that softened when I had another taste of my own dish. Her plate and mine could not be more different.

“Want some?” She offered me a generous scoop of her food, including what looked like a chocolate-covered octopus tentacle hanging off the side. “I guarantee you’ve never tasted anything like it.”

“Gee, how can I refuse?” I said, while edging away from her spoon as if it was radioactive. I saw a drop of the brown goop dribble from the spoon and fall onto the table, where I almost expected it to start sizzling and melting the tablecloth.

“Are you sure? After a spoonful of mine, yours will taste even more delicious,” she said, with a cheerful grin that was a bit too wide to be trustworthy.

“Or I could just eat my tasty food and not die,” I replied, gently pushing her spoon away with my knife. I dared not even approach that mess with the fork I was eating with.

“It’s all about contrasts, Cody. The sweet is never as sweet without the sour,” she quoted primly, pushing the spoon in my direction one last time. As it dribbled again I had to drag my plate away to avoid any contamination.

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

It was while we were busy childishly arguing over this that a new person entered the dining room. He was a short man, with frizzy black hair that, even short, stood to the sides and up like he had just received an electric shock. He seemed to be of indian or middle-eastern descent, with dark skin and eyes that carefully glanced at the room. He looked at us and gave a quick smile before his eyes lit at the sight of the buffet, and he made a beeline for it without sparing us a second glance.

“Oh. Who is he?” I muttered softly, while looking curiously at the new arrival.

“He was brought here by the Mi-Go, I’m sure.” whispered Suzy, intrigued, but not surprised. “Interesting, it looks like we’re not the only ones testing this resort.”

“What?‘ I frowned. “They’re already bringing people here? Isn’t that dangerous?!” Suddenly the cocaine in the breakfast buffet seemed less funny than before.

“I don’t have much say in what the Mi-Go do or don’t do, you know,‘ she said with an amused grin. “No more than I have any say in human politics or culture.”

“Ok, no problem! Let’s keep it that way,” I replied hurriedly, before she got any ideas.

“You know, this might be good,” she said, looking again at the man now piling a generous portion of bacon on his plate, much like I had done. “You want to know if this is a safe place to send people you want to save, right? This is a good chance to get an outside opinion.”

“I don’t want you doing anything weird to him,” I said. “No absorbing him or messing with his mind.”

She rolled her eyes. “There are other methods. Behold.”

And with those words she got up from her chair and pulled me up while walking briskly towards the newcomer. He noticed us and froze while holding a full plate and reaching for a fork. Only his lips moved in a nervous smile.

“Hello there!! Hello!!” she said in a bright voice that sounded like it had been sprinkled with butterflies, daisies and the occasional unicorn. I flinched.”How are you doing today, sir??”

“Oh. Umm. Doing well, thank you,” the man said, with a small chuckle. He grabbed the fork and put it on his plate while glancing quickly at me, then back at her. Waiting for us to speak.

“Wonderful!!” She beamed a fake smile right out of a toothpaste ad. “We work for this lovely resort and we were wondering if your experience has been satisfactory so far!!”

“Oh. Yes, yes. Quite satisfactory, I mean, good! Very good!” replied the man, smiling and nodding. He looked relieved when she said we were just staff here.

“Any complaints?? Or issues?? Don’t be afraid to tell us!!” She gently prodded, looking at him expectantly. Her smile was unchanged.

“No, no. Everything is good. You people have a wonderful breakfast setup! I have never eaten this well before in my life,” he replied, beaming and gesturing at the tables. My eyes were drawn to the tray with cocaine, but he did not seem to notice it.

“What did you do before coming to this hotel?” I asked, point blank. He seemed taken aback, and then smiled sheepishly before replying.

“Oh, well. My name’s Rashid, and...” he gulped, before continuing. “Actually, I work as a store clerk. I happened to win a prize in a contest that gave me a free stay in this resort, so… That’s how I managed to get here.” He smiled, apologetically, avoiding our gaze. “I suppose I might look a bit like a fish out of water here.”

“Wow, congratulations on winning the prize!! Isn’t that wonderful??” She smiled while giving me a meaningful look. I felt a pang of guilt as I saw how awkward and embarrassed he was.

“And you’re enjoying your stay here?” I asked, in a gentler tone. “If there’s anything wrong, or something feels... Strange, please tell us. It’s very important.”

“Oh, I’m, uh… Enjoying it quite a bit,” he nodded again, glancing at us quickly. “Never been to a place this fancy before. All this food? And the bedroom?” He let out a nervous chuckle. “It’s only a shame that the prize was only for one person. I feel slightly guilty living the good life here for a few days while everyone I know is back home. It’s not that they live in a bad place, but it’s not… Like this.” He gestured at the large dining room full of ornamented silverware and elegant vases and decorations.

“Any family back at home?” I asked, without even considering how I came off. If he thought I was being nosy, he did not show it.

“A girlfriend. Not too serious, but I wish she was here.” He smiled and his nervousness calmed slightly, as he looked at the far off distance. “She wished she could come together with me. We looked into paying for her but there was no way we could afford it. In the end, she told me to go for it. Said I needed the break.” A small happy smile crept on his expression as he spoke.

“That’s too bad,” I replied, also smiling sympathetically. “I hope you enjoy your stay regardless.”

We wished him well, said our goodbyes and he went to a table to enjoy his food, which now was probably a bit cold. Once out of earshot, Suzy dropped her fake cheerful persona, sporting a smug grin instead.

“Alright, I admit it. He seems quite happy here,” I told her before she could rub it in. Her smile only widened.

“Still, it could be the brainwashing thing. We don’t know if he’d still be happy after living here for a few months,” I continued. She kept silent and kept smiling with infuriating calm.

“Anyways, how many more guests do they have at the moment?” I asked, trying to change the subject. Her smile finally dropped as her expression grew thoughtful.

“I actually don’t know. Why don’t we check with the Mi-Go researching this place?”

“Haven’t seen any around,” I said, eyes glancing across the room. “Wait. Did the Mi-Go cook all this stuff?” I looked at the trays of the breakfast buffet and imagined a Mi-Go with a white chef hat flipping pancakes in an iron skillet. The mind boggled at the thought.

Suzy responded by chuckling and grabbing me by the hand. “Come, let me show you something,” she said as she dragged me towards one of the walls. She did not slow down and instead went through the wall, not in a kool-aid man sort of way, but ghosting through it as if the wall was never there.

And it wasn’t.

It’s hard to describe what happened to my perception at that moment, the closest I can think of are those 3D pictures that you are supposed to squint and look at until you see a picture amidst the noise, like an optical illusion or a trick of the light.

The wall was never there. I looked back at my memories and realized the wall had never existed at all. The dining room was perfectly normal, except for the fact it did not have any wall on one side. And outside the room…

Was a massive cavern, so immense its distant wall looked more like a mountain, vanishing into the darkness above, with multiple floors made of a spongy substance connected through ramps and pillars made of bone, wood, sinew and flesh. The cavern was crawling with Mi-Go, who moved and flew to and fro like insects. Others crowded over strange constructs. Everything was made of living material, bone and flesh, as well as wood and even what looked like fungi. Some of it seemed alive. Many of them had tentacles that interfaced with the Mi-Go tendrils, although to what purpose I could not guess.”

To go from a normal-looking hotel to such an alien environment left me speechless for a moment, and Suzy dragged me without protest into the cavern, walking on alien ground past incomprehensible things and surrounded by Mi-Go who scattered frantically as we approached. They feared her.

“Mi-Go technology. They block your perception of something, or the absence of something in this case,” clarified Suzy as she calmly walked further into the cavern. She turned her head to me and smiled. “I like to call it ‘the fourth wall’ but that may be my theatrical bias speaking.

She let go of my hand and approached one of them, and as she did her head burst like a firework, blossoming into a multitude of tentacles like a Mi-Go head. She undulated and communicated with one of the creatures, not missing a step as she approached it without any eyes to see where she walked. It was unsettling to see her in a human body but with no head, instead a hundred small tentacles twisting frantically while attached to a human neck. I turned away and glanced back at the hotel, in search of something familiar.

It brought to mind an ant terrarium I owned once. In it you could see the tunnels made by the ants in their colony, their different chambers and eggs all visible through the glass that covered the sides.

This was a human terrarium. Rooms neatly stacked on top of each other, stretching floor above floor. None of the other rooms had a wall on one side, allowing anyone outside to see what happened in the rooms in voyeuristic impunity. Most of the rooms, especially on the floors above, were empty, but there were a few tenants in the lower floors. They completely ignored the missing wall as they did their normal activities. I could see Rashid, finishing his meal. I saw other guests lying on the bed or working on a laptop. I even saw a man mastrubating while looking at his computer. All in glorious view of the hundreds of Mi-Go in the cavern. Every person in blissful ignorance, vulnerable and completely at the mercy of the alien beings that surrounded them without their knowledge.

“Oh, looks like the extra people were for our benefit. The Mi-Go thought you’d be happier with some company. Heh, right instinct but wrong time.” I turned to see Wolfy, the yellow sock puppet, again on her arm. Her head still sported the multiple tentacles, so it was Wolfy who said, “You gotta cut them some slack, kid. Humanity is as weird to the Mi-Go as they are weird to you, but they’re trying their best.”

“Oh. You again.” I couldn’t even muster anger or surprise anymore. Compared to what I had just seen, this was as normal as the sunrise. Normal as coffee for breakfast.

“Yep. And I know you must be freaking out over the missing wall thing. But you have to see it from their perspective. They’re all about research and understanding, privacy is not even a word in their language. Well, they don’t have words at all, but… Anyways. The point is...”

“It’s alright, I’m not angry.” I spoke quietly, ignoring the puppet, my attention turned back to the hotel without the fourth wall.

“Huh. Really?” The puppet tilted its head in curiosity.

I looked at the guests. Rashid was talking to another man at the buffet, pointing at the tray full of bacon. They both laughed. In another room a mother and her young daughter were unpacking, the mother carefully searching for places to put her things while the daughter ran back and forth to explore her new room, experimentally prodding and touching everything.

“They seem happy enough, here,” I said, looking at the guests. “It’s a little creepy, that the Mi-Go can see into what we’re doing. It feels like a zoo. But… I can accept that. If that’s the price we have to pay for humanity to survive, I can accept it.”

“Huh,” replied the puppet, after a brief silence. “And here I had a whole speech ready for when you complained. Now I’m out of material! Are you sure you don’t want to complain at least a little?”

“Well, I do want to make sure that they won’t be harmed,” I replied, frowning. “We need to discuss what is going to happen to the people here. But I am willing to give this a chance. Beats the alternative of dying back on earth.”

“Hey, they’re alien researchers, not mad scientists,” replied Wolfy. “They might do small adjustments, but mostly they are interested in preserving and observing humans. So no anal probes in their plans.”

Wolfy went quiet and, as suddenly as they appeared, the tentacles on Suzy’s head coiled back into the shape of a human head. She flicked an errant strand of her blonde hair and looked at me with a serious expression. The effect was slightly ruined by the fact she still had a sock puppet on her hand.

“I’m glad you are keeping an open mind,” she said. The Mi-Go she was talking to skittered away.

“Finished your conversation?” I asked.

She did not reply immediately, instead looking at the caverns thoughtfully. “There is something I have to show you,” she said.

“Can we discuss about this… Hotel research place afterwards? And what the Mi-Go are planning for the people living here.”

“Cody. When you made your wish to me, you explicitly mentioned that I should help you as much as possible in making any decision, without any lies or omissions, remember?”

“Yes,” I replied, taking another nervous glance at the hotel. “Why? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“I wanted to give you a chance to see this conservation facility at its best. Nothing malicious, just a good first impression,” she replied, looking away as she mulled something over in her mind. “But before we talk any further… There is something I must show you. It’s a bit far, so bear with me.”

With those words she jumped and from her back sprouted two pairs of gigantic insect wings. She hovered briefly on the air, as the wings hummed furiously, flapping to fast for the eye to see. Then she grabbed me and both of us took off before I could even shout in surprise.

And so we flew past countless other alien creatures and their constructs, from one cavern to the next. She flew fast enough I had to blink away the air rushing past my face, yet the caves were still massive, and it took a long time to travel through them. Some I could not understand, covered in fungi or wriggling tentacles that the Mi-Go tended to or operated on with no pattern that I could understand. It was all mysterious and outside anything I had seen before, I was as lost as a wild animal would be in a human city, with all the noise and activity beyond my understanding. I clung close to Suzy as she made her way.

However, we passed by many other places I did understand. Other human terrariums, similar to the hotel, yet different. They had different architectures and cultures, a little village on the mountains, a packed cross-section of a city with narrow alleys and signs in an asian language I did not recognize. Even a boat, complete with a fake ocean, all were in separate, massive caves that might have housed an entire neighbourhood from a dense city, and each had one of the walls removed for easy access to the Mi-Go, who were even more numerous than I thought.

Some of these areas, I realized, had people in them. Different people from all over the world, but just as oblivious as the ones in the hotel. My mind reeled at how many people this place might have already, and the thought scared me.

“So this… Conservation thing. They’ve started way ahead of us, it seems,” I muttered, looking at the people crowded on one side of the large yacht where it looked like a party was going on.

“This place is not for your benefit, Cody. We’re just… Taking advantage of their resources,” said the Queen in Yellow. “They would do this with or without our input.”

“Wait, so how do they get so many people…? And keep them here? This is huge!” I spoke quietly, as anything loud echoed easily on the massive cavern and the Mi-Go themselves never spoke. All one could hear was the clicking of their feet as they worked on anything solid, or the buzzing as they flew for short bursts here and there, all of it echoing on the enormous walls of each chamber.

“They’ve been visiting earth for a while,” she commented nonchalantly.

“For a while? Visiting earth?” I frowned. It was hard to believe that the conspiracists ranting about alien abductions could be right in some way.

“They are good at keeping hidden, and had no interest in disrupting your civilization.” She shrugged, not slowing the steady pace we had maintained for the past half hour. It took a long time to fly between one chamber and the next, but despite our speed she did not seem to be in a hurry, although her face was unusually serious.

It was in the next chamber that she said “This is it,” and pointed at the human area of the chamber, carefully constructed by the Mi-Go to resemble earth. We landed in front of it.

This one resembled a slum.

The look of the place felt foreign, like something I had seen in a magazine or on TV, but its state was unmistakably squalid. Cheap houses of brick and mortar, sometimes without even any paint covering the grey cement.They were built on a hill, piling over each other haphazardly and with the ever-present missing fourth wall, that showed rough interiors of cheap or broken furniture and exposed wires giving whatever meager light and electricity the house needed. Outside the trash was piled all over the place, clogging drains on streets where the lamp posts were all broken or malfunctioning. The whole thing was a testament to the decay and crippling poverty of the place, so much that it seemed to break everything it touched in some way.

That was a good descriptor of the people living in that place: broken. Worn down and living in ways no people should live. Some toiled in tiny, dirty kitchens or hanged their clothes to dry on windows, while others were surrounded by bottles, clearly drunk. I could see a dog so skinny you could see its ribs through the coat, scavenging for food at a nearby garbage pile while a child, not even a teenager yet, huddled behind the pile of garbage and curled to sleep on an improvised bed made of cardboard. Not all of the people there were miserable, but even those who were upbeat, singing or eating together and laughing, were but pale flickers of light amidst the gloom of their surroundings. One could almost feel the desperate struggle those people faced to keep fighting for happiness in that broken place.

“The Mi-Go want to preserve humanity in its many different habitats,” spoke Suzy, softly. “From the brightest and best to the worst. All of what humanity has to offer.”

I ignored her, still looking at the human terrarium, at the inside of people’s homes, so easily visible even from a distance. It was unnerving, how much I could see that I shouldn’t. I saw a man plunging a syringe’s contents into his arm in a dingy, dirty house that had only a mattress on the ground, a woman beside him already sunk deeply in the only way she could escape that place. I could see a few kids, some shirtless and none of them well-fed, teasing a younger one by throwing a shoe back and forth, while the kid tried to grab it. Then one threw the shoe over onto the roof of another house and they all laughed, although I could not hear it. They were too far. But I could still see the younger one was missing one of his shoes.

“I felt you should know about this, before making a decision,” said Suzy.

“Could… Could we go in there and help these people? Give them food or other stuff, at least?”

She shook her head. “It won’t matter. The Mi-Go erase their memories regularly, to control what they do. Their goal is complete preservation of human behavior.”

I looked back at the slums in mute horror. We stood there, both silent for a brief moment. “Is this how they see us?” I pondered out loud. “When they look at humanity, is this what they chose to preserve?”

“They do not see things the way you do, Cody.” Her voice was firm and calm, utterly certain of every word she spoke. “They see the different places humanity lives in, the different choices they make, and all they see is study material. And research demands a diverse sample. Happy people, sad people, rich and poor, young and old, from heroes and rescuers to criminals and abusers, from...”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Abusers… What do you mean by that?”

She paused, but did not look away or show any embarrassment or even a shred of guilt.

“Think of the worst humanity has to offer. They have it. Maybe in another chamber, but it will be found here, as well as on earth. A full sample of research material,” she replied. “And I have no intention of showing it to you. You get the picture well enough,” she gestured at the slum. I stared at it again, in time to catch an argument in one of the houses. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but a man and a woman were arguing and gesturing furiously, throwing small things at each other in anger. This lasted until the man hit her so hard she stumbled back, stunned, and fell to the floor like a limp doll. Suddenly all fight was gone from her. There were Mi-Go working just outside the house, behind the fourth wall, and they paid her no mind. The man kept screaming at her, shouting and menacing her as she cowered more. And I knew that later their memories would be erased and he would hit her again. And again. Forever. A moment preserved for the benefit of the Mi-Go.

“I don’t care if they’re aliens or not,” I growled, barely suppressing my anger, “this is wrong.”

“It’s a part of humanity, as much as any other,” replied calmly the King in Yellow. “Kindness and cruelty. Pain and joy.” She smirked, but there was no joy in it as she recited once again, “the sweet is never as sweet without the sour.”

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Mike Spivak

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