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Chapter 10 – Escape Velocity

Day 132, all good people:

Somehow I always managed to be late for work, and today was no different. I crept quietly through the halls, peeking into Slorp’s office and finding the Slixt dozing heavily. All of its eyes wre closed, a soft flatulent sound escaping from its mouths as it wriggled comfortably, half-submerged in a steaming inflatable goo-pool. I backed up as quietly as possible, hoping that Slorp would be out of it for the whole day and maybe part of the next as well. Even so, I didn’t want to tempt fate, tiptoeing down the curved hallway in search of Jerkface and Wheezy. They were in the usual spot, waiting impatiently for me to arrive.

They were in the usual spot, waiting impatiently for me to arrive.

( grumbling ) ‘You’re late. Again,’ said Jerkface matter-of-factly. Wheezy coughed in agreement from the storage room.

I shrugged, leaning against a dormant Greeb-a-lizer and dreading whatever stupidly boring task Jerkface would assign us today.

Getting a job with the Species Transition Crew was something that I still couldn’t believe I’d pulled off, though P’shush’t had already come to collect on the deal by asking me to inform on my fellow Humans. I knew that the Slixt would be looking for an update soon, and I’d either have to make something up or make good on the escape plan before that happened.

It felt like there was an invisible countdown clock applying constant pressure to everything I did, and some of that pressure was bound to eventually burst through the seams.

The only good news was that I had found a time and place to share my plans with my friends. But until then, I’d have to make it through a few more days of acting like everything was ok.

It might have been better if we were busy at work, but we never were. The only aliens we’d picked up in the past few months had all been abducted when I was sick, and the Slixt hadn’t taken anyone else since. It was both frustrating and a relief. The whole reason that I wanted this job in the first place was so that I could make the transition easier on newcomers than it had been for me. So far, all I’d managed to do was a bunch of nothing. But at least we were all getting paid regularly, and that made life easier, if not exactly enjoyable.

‘Are you planning to do that all day, or are you going to help us?’ said Jerkface irritably, snapping me out of my thoughts.

‘Er, do what?’ I asked.

‘Stand there with your mouth hanging open and staring at the wall like an ( idiot ).’

I must have broadcast the ( embarrassed ) or ( ashamed ) sub-titles because Jerkface snorted and chittered at me as I followed him into the storage room. ‘So,’ I asked with what I hoped was the right amount of conciliation in my tone, ‘What are we getting up to today?’

Jerkface chittered again as Wheezy pushed a cart toward us. It was piled high with boxes of injectors, medical supplies, and half-empty Schi’tt-sacs.

Jerkface and Wheezy flashed the creepy alien-equivalent of grins at me and Jerkface pointed at the cart, saying, ‘You push it… we’re doing inventory today.’

That didn’t sound like anything to smile about. The birthing-level must have had thousands of operating rooms (I’m not really sure, it’s not like I counted them or anything, but the level was huge) and twice as many storage rooms. There was enough stuff down here to abduct entire planets worth of people. Counting and cataloguing all that crap was a lifetime’s worth of work, but as I pushed the cart down the hallway toward the elevator tubes Wheezy just slapped me on the back and chittered with Jerkface.

We took the Downtube up into the city while my co-workers explained something that should have been at least partly obvious to me by that point.

Wheezy started to say, ‘You’ve probably noticed that we don’t have a lot to do these days -’

Jerkface cut in with a ( snarky ), ‘Even though you’re never around when there’s real work to be done. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were a Slixt.’

A remark to which I held up seven fingers, waggling them at Jerkface. It was a gesture that I learned from a rude Uartungert a few weeks back, and one he couldn’t return, not having enough “fingers” to work with. So he just fumed, cursing me back in his own language (sub-titles not needed).

Wheezy ignored the exchange, happy as a Doolom Clam, waving at passersby as he explained, ‘The city’s about full if you haven’t noticed…’ I couldn’t say that I had, but they went on anyway, ‘So the days of taking on new citizens by the thousand are long gone.’

By the thousand?

Wheezy cleared some sputum from a tube and wheezed on, ‘Only thing to do is wait for the Slixt to decide to top up the population in cases where someone dies of natural causes, or gets themselves eaten. But even you couldn’t fail to notice that we’ve got enough gear down there to last us a few million cycles.’

I looked around, realizing that it all made a certain kind of sense. ‘Uh, ok,’ I replied, and then noticed where were heading with all those supplies. Jerkface directed us around a corner and into the back of the recycling line.

A half-hour later we were sitting under an alien-umbrella-thing outside of a cafe. Jerkface brought a round of drinks and handed Wheezy a stack of resource chits and me a much smaller one. But it was free money, and I can’t say that I felt all that badly about enjoying a drink at the Slixt’s expense (even if it was with Jerkface and Wheezy) while Slorp snored away back on the birthing level.

It would have been the perfect day if not for a ( stern clicking ) behind me just as I finished telling a rude joke. My face turned red and I quickly palmed the resource chits, stuffing them into my pockets as Nixa’s matter-of-fact tone sliced through my good mood.

‘Aren’t you all supposed to be at work?’ she demanded while I sunk guiltily down into the chair.

‘Er…’ I said. Nixa looked furious, and even though her presence would have been awesome at any other time, I wasn’t that glad to see her just then. ‘Uh, hi,’ I replied meekly.

Nixa was too furious with me to give me a lecture (that’s how I knew how much trouble I was in) and stormed off.

Shrugging at my chittering colleagues, I ran after her, yelling, ‘Nixa!’ and, ‘Hey wait up!’ but she was really fast when she wanted to be.

Day 134, calling card:

I woke up to a priority message on my tablet from P’shush’t: ( I expect an update soon Human. )

Day 135, the plot:

Nixa was mad at me again. It was something that tended to happen often, but had become more frequent since J&J came into the picture. Yet, she agreed to meet, and there she was, looking ( uncomfortable ), sitting across from Jane and John, who were also mad at me for separate and different reasons, but who had decided to come after all.

We were in the ring-park, near a small copse of tree-things, but not too close to anyone who could overhear our conversation (I hoped).

The four of us made for an unhappy quartet (even I found myself not wanting to be there) and was hoping that after they heard the plan, everything would be ok again. Better than that even.

The first thing that John said was, ‘Why is she here?’ Meaning Nixa. It was typical, and I had no patience for his attitude, choosing to ignore him. Nixa crossed her arms.

I cleared my throat, looked around, and said quietly, ‘I think the Slixt know we’re planning to escape.’

Nixa stiffened. Jane looked ready to bolt. John went into anger mode, as per, and asked suspiciously, ‘Why do you say that?’

I’m not really sure why I said that either. It wasn’t a good start and would require a lot of backpedaling to fix. There was no (easy) way to tell them about P’shush’t, even if it would have been the right thing to do. I gave a wide shrug, too used to over-emoting on account of the sub-titles, and said, ‘Uh… I think that Slorp – that’s my boss – is getting suspicious.’

John leaned in, eyes narrowing, ‘You’ve been talking about our plans? With aliens?’

I could tell that Nixa was ready to jump in, but I gave her a look and she leaned back again, brooding. To John I said, ‘Is that why you don’t trust me? You think that I talk too much?’

He jerked his head in Nixa’s direction, Jane watching what was happening like it was a tennis match, and he said, ‘I don’t want to have this conversation in front of aliens.’

‘For crying out loud,’ I said, exasperated. ‘Nixa is a great person, which you’d know by now if you just gave her a chance.’

John was immovable. ‘Don’t make me repeat myself.’

Couldn’t just one thing go the way it was supposed to? ‘Fine just listen then. I called you all here for a reason…’

John grabbed Jane’s hand, sending a wave of complex emotions through me. Rising up he said, ‘Better make it quick then… or we’re leaving.’

Casting shifty glances around the park like I was guilty of something, I waved for them to sit, and said, ‘It’s on account of leaving this ship that we are…’

Jane glared at John intensely and then they sat down again.

Nixa cut in, ‘What are you talking about?’

I made eye-contact with all of them, hoping that my expression and tone would convey the gravity of what was about to be said. ‘I found something, something big, but before I tell you, you have to promise to control your expressions, in case anybody is watching us… especially you Jane.’

Jane started gobbing off, shrill. ‘What the ( curse ) does that mean?’ while I tried desperately to shush her.

John squeezed her hand, hard, and said, ‘Shut it, will you? I want to hear this…’

Jane shrieked at John, ‘How dare you speak to me like that?’

Just great. At least Nixa had the sense to remain calm, on the outside anyway.

I fairly hissed at them in a hoarse whisper, ‘Both of you… keep it together. I just told you to keep it cool for ( expletive’s ) sake… If this is how it’s going to go, I’m leaving and you can all rot…’ But I just meant J&J. Nixa was still cool.

‘Fine’, grumbled Jane. John just did his smoldery-thing while giving Nixa the evil eye.

‘I’m telling you now John, I don’t want to hear you telling-off Nixa again. She’s my friend… you don’t like it, fine, but if that’s the way you want to be, then you two can stay behind when we…’

Well, that shut them all up real good. Even Nixa was stunned.

Very quietly, John said, ‘What did you just say?’

I replied in kind to John, sounding dangerous, which I didn’t think was a thing that I could do. ‘You heard me… make up your mind in the next five seconds or I’m walking.’

It didn’t take five seconds for John to make up his mind. He did something between a head-shake and a nod, Jane staring at me wide-eyed. At least I’d managed to get them all to shut up for a minute.

In hushed tones, I detailed my discovery of Sub-Level Six and what was down there. It took a good ten or fifteen minutes of talking without pausing to explain everything. By the end, I felt strangely powerful and confident – but my friends reacted in unexpected ways.

They should have been thrilled, but Jane’s eyes were flickering fitfully between John’s and mine. Nixa didn’t move a muscle, saying nothing – even though she undoubtedly had a lot say on the matter (just maybe not in front of J&J).

The seconds ticked by uncomfortably, and then J&J did that shared-look thing and smiled. Nixa got up without another word and started walking away. I started running after her but John grabbed my wrist painfully and twisted me toward him, putting his lips very close to my ear, his hot breath on my neck.

‘Don’t ( expletive ) this up,’ he whispered.

By the time I broke free, Nixa was too far away for me to catch up.

Day 138, alone again:

Nixa ignored all my messages. I sent dozens, but there was no reply.

Day 139, false alarm:

When my tablet chimed, I frantically checked if Nixa had come around… but the text was from John instead.

He wanted to see me.

Day 140, loyalties divided:

John had me meet him in a narrow alleyway behind the bazaar, a location that felt a little over-dramatic and obvious, but I agreed anyway. At least he showed up on time. He was wearing some flashy new boots, and I wondered if he’d found some way to siphon resource credits off the Slixt too.

This time I wanted to be the one in control of our encounter, so before he could begin, I said, ‘It’s time to put your cards on the table John… what the ( hell ) has been going on with you two?’

It took a second for him to reply. I could tell he was thinking about how to answer. Finally he said, ‘You mean with Jane? Romantically? Are you jealous?’

I was, but I could also see through his little attempt to get me off track. Granted, it was a strategy that was usually effective. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Just tell me what’s going on, and stop playing stupid.’

‘Playing stupid?’ he asked in a mocking tone.

I frowned, ‘You know what I’m talking about.’

He visibly angered, knuckles going white, teeth clenched, and I wondered (not for the first time) if he had a serious anger-management issue. He said, ‘So tell me what’s what then, if you’re so smart. But I’m warning you right now, stay out of things that don’t concern you.’

I figured he was talking about where Jane and he got their fancy clothes and things. I said, ‘Nobody acts as stupid as you and Jane do. You’ve seen the Slixt “togetherness patrols”, you know what happens to people who refuse to assimilate, but you keep on being so bloody obvious about not trying, don’t you? If we’re going to get off of this ship, then you have to learn to play the game a little bit, otherwise the slugs will catch on to whatever it is you’ve been up to. I mean, aside from escaping. Don’t look at me like that – you and Jane are getting money from somewhere… and I’m not judging you, honestly. Whatever we can do to undermine the Slixt is a good thing in my books. In my case, that’s “borrowing” stuff from work. But you two aren’t working, and whatever you’re doing is going to get noticed, sooner or later.’ I paused to see if John would reply, but he just shifted as if he was going to storm off again in his typical style of high-melodrama (J&J were rarely very subtle, and that was a problem).

After a moment I continued, ‘Listen up a minute. I just want what’s best for the two of you, really. This situation isn’t exactly easy for me either… so get real. You “don’t remember” where you came from, or anything about your old life, right? … You think that I have it better than you, because I can remember my whole life, except for the day of my abduction, but I’m telling you – I don’t know what’s worse: not knowing my past, or knowing it…

‘I’m no happier here than you are. I may have adjusted better than you have, but we all need to focus on survival, escape, and fitting in long enough not to get caught. You and jane could try a little harder if I’m being honest… for the love of… just play it cool until we escape. It’s not too much to ask, is it?

John’s expression was unreadable. Maybe he was expecting the conversation to go in a different direction, maybe he just wasn’t used to me standing up to him so openly. He looked like he was about to argue with me.

‘Just let me finish… please. There’s days when I wish that I couldn’t remember anything about Earth… That it would be easier if I only had to deal with what’s in the here and now. In the present… I’ve lost everything too, but I don’t have a “Jane” to go through it all with… and all I’m saying is that sometimes I think I’d rather not know anything about my previous life… because even if we do escape, I’m not sure that we’ll ever get back to the Earth. We don’t even know how far away it is, or whether we can convince anyone to get us back there, so yeah, no matter what happens, this might be it. If our plan doesn’t work out, then we’re going to be dead, or trapped here forever… and if it does work out, we might be on the run forever. That’s all I’m trying to say.’

John looked confused, ‘What?’

I sighed, ‘For ( curse’s ) sake – act like you fit in! You don’t have to actually buy into the Slixt ( expletive ), but you have to pretend to! … ( curse! ) … All your stupid secretive ( expletive )… your whole teenage-revolutionary thing. You act like you’re Che Guevara or something, but… I just want… I…’

I couldn’t go on – didn’t have the words to say what had to be said. Couldn’t form the words in my mind, let alone bring them to my lips. I just wanted J&J to be safe. My voice broke and my sub-titles must have been truly pathetic.

He put his hands over his face and took a deep breath, ‘I don’t want to have this conversation.’

I wasn’t sure which conversation he didn’t want to have; the one we were having or the one we almost had. So I tried to veer us back to the straight-and-narrow. ‘Just… try… if not for my sake, then Jane’s.’

He obviously didn’t like any of it. But whatever calculation had been going through his head, it seemed that he’d come to a result that he could accept. All of the tension went out of him at once.

I added, ‘Hey, if we’re going to get through the next few weeks… I’m going to need you to be on my side…’

John said, ‘This plan of yours had better work.’

I grabbed his arm. He looked down at my hand like he’d never seen a Human before, and I said, ‘Wait! What have you been meaning to talk to me about? We’re all alone here, so tell me, what is it?’

John tensed his arm, looked at me, and said, ‘It’s not important anymore… if you really can get us out of here, then that’s all that matters.’

I jumped on that, ‘So something is going on! What is it? It can’t be about Jane… or me… but you could tell me if it was something to do with me… whatever it is… I’ll understand… but I just want to know what it is.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he replied, shaking off my hand and turning away. ‘I gotta go… I’ll see you when it’s time.’

There was a lot more that I wanted to talk to John about, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get the chance. Maybe things would be different once we all escaped.

Day 148, I can’t do this alone:

Another episode of “Humans are Dumb” just wrapped up when my door-chime rang.

What now?

I got up and straightened out my t-shirt as much as possible, not wanting to see anyone just then. Door-to-door sales-Gleeps had been trying to get me to buy a Vroomfoort all week, ringing my bell at least four times a day. I didn’t even know what a Vroomfoort was or why I’d need one.

I was ready to tell the alien to go Gleep itself, but then the door swished open and it was Nixa standing there. She walked right past me and sat on her side of the couch, looking angry. Rebuffing my offer of grubs from the food-cupboard, Nixa said, ‘Don’t bother.’

I slouched my shoulders and sank down onto the other end of the couch, staring at the wall, knowing if I waited long enough she would say what she came to say (no matter how angry, she was still Nixa).

She stared at the wall and said, ‘I thought you liked it here…’

That was a tough one. ‘I do like it here, I guess, but I’d rather be back home on my own planet… wouldn’t you?’

She wouldn’t look at me, ‘I thought we were friends…’

‘We are! Nixa! … I know things have been weird lately, but we are friends! Aren’t we?’

( alien sigh ), ‘You’re actually going to try it then?’

I chanced a glance at her, but she was very freakishly still in the way that big bugs could be. ‘You’re not coming?’ I asked in a panic.

‘Nobody has ever escaped before… I just want to know if you’re stupid enough to think that this will work… ’

Turning toward her, I said, ‘I am! I mean… I’m not stupid… it’s just that this might be our only chance… and I don’t know if I can do this without you… I’m not sure I’d even want to…’

Nixa got up and walked to the door. I stood up too. ‘This is a bad idea,’ she said.

I reached out to touch her shoulder-thingy but that wasn’t really a thing that we did. So I just held my hand out, weirdly grasping, not knowing if I should lower it again. ‘Please tell me you’ll come with us.’

Nixa raised her own hand, her claws lightly touching the tips of my fingers… then left without another word.


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