The words resounded against the dripping walls. “Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.”
Blood trickled from the corners of Trevor Hartigan’s mouth. His awareness flickered from the pain coursing through his broken fingertips to the oppressive heat in the room, to the crooked expression on the interrogator’s ugly face.
“If you lie to me again, you’ll beg me to kill you after what I do next,” the Confessor snarled, baring his nicotine-stained teeth.
Trevor’s spine ached from about a half-hour of confinement lashed to a straight-backed wooden chair. The duct tape wrapped tightly around his upper body dug into his back and chafed the skin on his abdomen. It seemed he had been sitting in this tiny dungeon for hours. He cursed himself for whatever carelessness had landed him in this predicament. He suspected it was the girl. He had let down his guard in a moment of weakness. Blanca had to be one of their spies. He worshipped her, had asked for her hand in marriage, and she had betrayed him.
He focused on the gap between his tormentor’s chipped front teeth. The gap reminded him of a missing board in a white picket fence. He imagined crawling through the hole in the fence to freedom.
“Save your energy and kill me now,” Trevor said in a low voice.
The pain in his body only served to sharpen his mind and resolve. He carefully hid this fact with every word out of his mouth, every subtle gesture. He had to convince the Confessor he was telling the truth.
“I’m a professional, Hartigan. I’ve seen every trick in the book.” The Confessor picked up a scalpel from a row of surgical knives glinting on a steel tray next to Trevor. “You’ll tell me what I need to know or I’ll cut out your eye. I want the names of your confederates.”
Beads of sweat ran from Trevor’s forehead. He blinked reflexively to keep the moisture from stinging his eyes.
“I’m a loyal citizen of the Conglomerate, Brother Confessor. I’ve been falsely accused by inferior minds jealous of my position.”
“You are a traitor and a fool, Hartigan. You enjoyed wealth and privilege as the Conglomerate’s Master Architect. You had the opportunity to design buildings that would have lasted for centuries. Your fame would have spread around the world. You threw it all away when the girl convinced you to join the resistance.”
The Confessor ripped off his cowl. His head began to transform into the head of a Praying Mantis. Long, spindly legs sprouted underneath the Confessor’s navy blue robe. The garment burst apart as the insect grew taller. The roof of the room suddenly blasted skyward, as if it were the second stage of a rocket.
Trevor was so terrified his heart nearly stopped beating. Blanca had told him the resistance knew very little about the aliens due to the group’s limited resources. Trevor imagined no amount of training or preliminary briefing could have prepared him for what was happening before his bleary eyes.
The Confessor-turned-insect continued to grow past the height of the former ceiling. Trevor stared upwards just as the giant creature’s claw reached down to pluck him out of the cell, chair and all. He turned away, unable to look at the monster’s bulging eyes and chewing mandibles. He felt certain the Mantis was preparing to eat him alive.
Looking down from the twenty-foot high vantage point in the giant insect’s grasp, Trevor saw a honeycomb of cells on the ground similar to the one he had occupied seconds ago. On either side, a straight rock face soared hundreds of feet from a makeshift pine wood floor. It was hard to make out more details in the bluish-gray light emanating from a source somewhere above them.
Trevor figured the interrogation installation had been carved out of a massive cavern somewhere underneath the city. A huge construction crane positioned in the middle of the complex plucked the triangle-shaped roof off another interrogation cell with its multi-story steel arm. Another poor soul was about to be scared further out of his or her wits, it appeared.
Trevor thought of Blanca again. It was impossible to keep her out of his mind for more than a few minutes since the time he had met her. How could she have done this to him?
“The girl isn’t a double-agent, as you suspect,” the giant Mantis said. She will be arrested soon after she leads us to more members of the resistance.
How could the creature know he was thinking of Blanca?
“To answer your question, I can read a human mind when I get in the same room as one. Your thoughts during our session have revealed most of the useful information you have to offer. This final stage of the interrogation process makes any remaining secrets as easy to suck up as fresh meat off a dry bone.”
All of the nerve-endings in Trevor’s body went numb. “I’m glad Blanca showed me I was working for a race of alien monsters instead of what I thought was a multi-national energy corporation.”
“You are the monster,” the Mantis said. “The Conglomerate will soon be well established in every country of this world as more of us arrive. In ten years, it will no longer be necessary for us to transform into human form. The human race will cease to exist.”
Trevor heard his bones cracking as the creature’s claw closed around him.
“Shut up.” The harsh voice came from far away.
Trevor’s eyes opened. The first thing he saw was the gray ceiling of his solitary jail cell. He rolled off the bunk bed and sank to his knees on the cold concrete floor. The smell of disinfectant and urine filled his nostrils. He moaned.
“Shut up, goddammit.” The guard appeared on the other side of the bars dressed in a gray shirt and olive pants. His right hand rested on the .38 revolver strapped to his waist.
All of the colors in this hellhole are drab, Trevor thought. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since he had taken to wearing bright colors shortly after meeting Blanca. After a year of dating, they had decided to marry. He had never been happier in his entire life.
“Quiet down and go back to sleep,” the guard said. “You make any more noise an’ I’ll call the shrink back in here to shoot you up with sedatives. You’re gonna’ learn to settle down and do your time quietly, if it takes a fist in the teeth to teach you how. You got that?”
“Yeah,” Trevor croaked.
The guard stepped away. His boots made a hollow echo down the concrete and steel corridor.
They had placed him on suicide watch. He had tried to hang himself with a belt. They stripped his cell of anything he might use to end his life. Padding protected the walls of his eight by ten foot cell. He had no such protection against the recurring nightmares and the memory of the accident. That night replayed in his mind like an endlessly looping horror film.
They had gone out with some friends to celebrate the latest job offer. He remembered Blanca pushing back her silky red hair and laughing gaily all night long. They drank and ate at the South Beach bar and restaurant until two o’clock in the morning. The hours swept by and the drinks went down without Trevor taking much notice. When the time to leave arrived, Trevor was too embarrassed to admit he was higher than a kite.
At first, Trevor thought an animal crossing the road had hit the front tire when he heard the thunk on Blanca’s side of the car. Blanca turned to him, wild-eyed. He had never seen the pedestrian jaywalking across the deserted street. Trevor had been speeding through the residential neighborhood to make it home in time to get a few hours of sleep before his nine A.M. job interview. He never made it to the interview.
The victim was a man in his early thirties, the father of three children. His wife was waiting for him across the street at the front door of their home when the accident occurred. She told the police exactly what happened. The man died from a brain hemorrhage on the way to the hospital.
He had dreamed about a career in architecture from boyhood. After completing Architecture School with honors, he had received job offers from the top firms in Miami. He looked forward to bringing beautiful buildings and bright, creative children into the world with the passion he felt for his work and his soul mate, Blanca.
Now, all he had to look forward to was a fifteen-year prison sentence. After the accident, Blanca wanted no part of him. His future as an Architect looked dim at best. What firm worth its salt would hire an inexperienced, middle-aged man with a felony record?
One careless act. One night of celebration. A single, poor decision. The lives of six people tragically altered forever. If he had the chance, Trevor would gladly change places with the man he had accidentally killed. But now, it was too late for remorse.