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Home > The Cage (The Cage #1)(13)

The Cage (The Cage #1)(13)
Author: Megan Shepherd

They had no irises. No pupils. They were entirely black.

Breath slipped from her. His was the face from her dreams. The most beautiful creature she had ever seen, yet he no longer looked angelic. He was terrifying.

And he isn’t human.

They weren’t in a dream, or virtual reality. They’d been taken by gods or aliens—or monsters.

The soldier flexed his glove.

Rolf fell to his knees. Nok crumpled next to him. The soldier’s presence screamed danger, but there was something captivating about him too, like staring into a flame. It was impossible to look away.

Coldness pooled between her shoulder blades. She leaned closer to Lucky, her heart pounding. Had this man been the shadowy figure behind those black windows? Studying them, like Rolf said? Was he the one who had dressed her in a stranger’s clothes?

Movement flickered to her left.

The black-eyed man’s presence didn’t seem to have the same captivating effect on Leon, who let out a war cry and lunged forward. Cora’s breath caught. Don’t fight back, that was the rule in situations like this, but Leon hadn’t gotten the memo—or hadn’t cared.

The soldier watched patiently, arms at his sides.

Leon collided with him.

Cora flinched. She expected cracking bones and spurting blood, but the moment Leon touched his shoulder, the stranger threw him. It was an effortless movement, no more than swatting a fly, but it sent Leon—who had to weigh 250 pounds—fifteen feet away.

All the strength from Cora’s body drained into the grass.

Leon pushed himself up, shaking the sweat out of his hair, looking stricken. “That bastard—he zapped me with some bloody thing!”

But the stranger held no weapons.

“Remain calm,” the soldier said. There was no trace of an accent, but his pitch was monotone and deep, just as unnatural as his eyes. “You are not in danger.”

“Who are you?” Lucky asked.

The soldier cocked his head. A second passed, and then another. Cora burrowed deeper against Lucky’s chest. The man’s eyes burned right through her, down to her innermost thought, hypnotizing her with a single look. She traced her eyes over his bare arms, his hands, his chest. The angel from her dreams—or rather, a demon. He looked so very close to being human, but he was beyond that, clearly from another place or time. Not just his metallic skin and otherworldly beauty, but the magnetic feeling he gave off. He radiated otherness.

“I am your Caretaker,” he said.

“Take us home,” Lucky demanded.

The Caretaker tilted his head, as though perplexed by the idea. “That is impossible. You are on our aggregate space station, far from your solar system. These habitats are meant to replicate the lives you would have experienced on Earth. We hope it pleases you.”

Cora drew in a sharp breath.

Not on Earth?

Her fingers fell away from Lucky and curled around the edges of a nearby tree, her stomach weightless even though nothing had changed. The tree beneath her hand wasn’t real. The grass wasn’t real. It wasn’t attached to soil; only whatever made up their space station, metal and pipes and tubing and materials she’d probably never heard of.

A cherry-blossom petal fluttered to the ground.

It landed in the grass, and she jerked her head up. Nok sobbed loudly—real tears, nothing fake now—and Rolf took her hand, as though hand-holding could protect them. Leon lay flat like he’d been knocked out cold.

Stay calm. Wait for help. Meaningless words now.

“Why did you bring us here?” Cora asked.

“We took you for your own benefit. My people are called the Kindred. We are the most advanced among the intelligent species, and as such, take responsibility for overseeing lesser races. We are stewards of endangered species such as yours.”

“Endangered?” The word tasted wrong in Cora’s mouth. Siberian tigers were endangered. Polar bears were endangered. Not humans.

The Caretaker flexed his black gloves. “Earth is a dangerous and unpredictable world. The practices of your species are unsustainable. So we have brought you here, where we can ensure the survival of your race regardless of your planet’s well-being. Here you have ample sustenance and a microcosm of the various habitats and cultures in your world. We have given you a variety of stimuli to exercise your minds and bodies. You will find these enrichment activities to be rewarding.”

He produced a small token from his pocket identical to the ones in the shops. It glinted in the sunlight, burning dark spots into Cora’s eyes. “There are eight enrichment puzzles in the biomes, and eight in the settlement areas. Complete each enrichment activity and you will receive a token redeemable in any of these commercial establishments. The candy and toys are authentic artifacts from Earth that will help you maintain an emotional connection to your previous home.”

She stared at him. Games. Toys. Candy. These people—the Kindred—thought they were children.

No, not children.

Animals.

Cora clenched her jaw, centering herself. Her headache throbbed, pushing her toward anger.

“Why us?” Lucky asked.

The Caretaker’s black eyes shifted among them. “You each display valuable attributes. Strength. Morality. Beauty. You are, in your own ways, paragons of your species.”

Nok started whimpering low, like a dog.

“We have three rules we require you to follow,” the Caretaker continued, oblivious to her fear, “which are for your own benefit and that of your species. The first is to solve the enrichment puzzles. This will strengthen your physical and mental conditioning. The second rule is to maintain your health by eating the food we provide for you, getting ample sleep, and cooperating in routine health assessments. The third rule is to ensure the continuation of your species by engaging in procreative activities.”

He spoke with such little inflection. Procreative activities? Cora took a step back as though the Caretaker had just burst into flames. “You put us here to reproduce?” she choked.

The Caretaker turned to her. “We require immediate compliance with Rule One and Rule Two, but we understand that your species does not adapt quickly to new situations, so we have granted you an adjustment phase. By the end of twenty-one days, we expect you to fully engage in Rule Three. If not, you will face removal.”

Removal. The word had a sinister ring. “Is that what happened to the dead girl we found on the beach? She didn’t cooperate, so you killed her?”

The stranger’s eyes shifted to Cora, and she got that involuntary shiver down her spine again. There was something so unnerving about him. So familiar. He’d been in her head—in her dreams.

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