Day 151, I’m not very good at waiting:
I’d slept poorly. Again. Things were speeding up uncontrollably and I couldn’t shake the feeling of being on some kind of a runaway rail-cart that was going to crash at any minute. Life was hard enough when you were just trying to get by, but I also had to deal with J&J and go to my job almost every day. On top of that, there were preparations for the escape plan, avoiding P’shush’t, finding a way to mend things with Nixa (who wasn’t talking to me) and still had to find the time to take care of myself too.
I didn’t think that I could give Nixa what she wanted -staying here wasn’t an option. Not when the real possibility of escape was so close.
I’d never know what Jane wanted, not really, but had come to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter, doubting that even she knew. But I was sure that she was the type who survived until the end of the movie (I hoped that the Slixt would feel that way too when it all inevitably ended in disaster).
For my part, I didn’t know what I wanted. Not exactly. Things were simpler in the dark days after my capture. I should have escaped before things got complicated. Before other people got caught up in my mess. The best option for all of us was waiting on Sub-Level Six.
I just hoped that I was right.
Day 163, no time like the present:
The fateful day came much quicker than expected. Everything was ready, and the moment that the inside-out sensation of warping across the emptiness of space ended, I checked my tablet and saw the message I was hoping for ping onto the display: ( Report to work immediately – Slorp )
It meant that the Slixt were going to pick up some more aliens, and would be near a planet (or something like it). Close enough at any rate to use the escape pods and have a reasonable chance of survival. It was time to make our move.
I quickly fired off the agreed signal to Jane and John. A simple message. Just the word “now”. They would have been waiting, and they better be ready.
There was still no word from Nixa, my fingers trembling as I sent her the same text – possibly the last we would ever exchange.
She probably wouldn’t reply, but I wanted to hear from her one last time.
Day 163, freedom calls:
As my heavy pack banged across my back, I wondered if we would make it.
I’d spent a lot of the loot I was “borrowing” from work on packaged food, water, and whatever supplies we might need once we got off the Slixt ship. In any case, it was too late for second guessing things; this might be our only chance.
So I ran through the city, panting, torn between my desire not to abandon Nixa, and my desire to be free (at least from the Slixt). Taking our chances out there in the big empty had to be better than spending the rest of our lives here.
Day 163, Downtube vestibule Blue 77:
John’s voice was quiet, but urgent, ‘Are we doing this or what?’
My own voice was shaky, barely keeping it together. ‘Just knock it off and keep it down, will you? And for the love of all that’s ( holy ), try to act natural… no, forget that.. try to act normal.’
‘What’s gotten into you?’ asked Jane in a rushed whisper, somewhat ignorantly, I thought. She might be cute, but she didn’t seem to have any common sense: like, who wouldn’t be afraid for their lives right now when we were planning on escaping and everything? Besides, we were all huddled up like a bunch of people involved with something shady.
We were trying to act casual, standing not so close to Blue Tube 77 as to be totally obvious, but we were also close enough that we could make a quick dash for it when the time was right. So far, there was a lot of foot-traffic coming in and out of the vestibule, and time that we didn’t have was slipping away.
We were on edge. I wondered if we’d get caught, what would happen to Nixa once we’d escaped, and feeling guilty about all that. The Slixt wouldn’t believe Nixa when she told them that she didn’t know what we’d been up to all these weeks. Just another way I’d let her down.
A passing Nezorf seemed much too interested in what we were doing, but eventually it moved off and was whiffed away into Orange Tube 11 without any further drama.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the alcove was empty (who knew how long that might last) so I dashed toward the tube, gesturing wildly for the others to follow. They were right behind me.
Jane ran faster than I thought possible. In a moment, she was at the tube entrance ahead of John and me. There was something different about her too, she was standing straighter and looked more clued-in than I had ever seen her. Maybe she was just really good in a crisis, but I couldn’t quite square that with the Jane that I knew.
She ignored me, barking at John. ‘Get into the ( expletive ) tube.’
John was there barely a second later, grabbing her roughly by the upper arms and asking her if she’d lost her mind. Jane’s eyes went wide, and then John shoved her a bit, and she whumped into the tube with a shocked look on her face, limbs flailing, and then she was gone.
John looked more pissed off than I’d ever seen him (which was saying a lot). He was glaring at me as if Jane’s unpredictability was my fault, but I urged him toward the tube with my arms, waving and hissing ‘Go! Go! … Go! – You idiot! … Go!’
John flashed me the Earth-version of the “seven-fingered salute” and then he stepped into the tube and away he went.
I was about to step in myself when I heard another set of running feet behind me, very fast, and then Nixa was beside me, like a specter, her face turned toward mine and her body’s momentum carrying her toward the tube.
Seemingly in slow motion, Nixa’s head passed very close to my own and she said, ‘Sometimes I really hate you.’ And then she whizzed past, gone in an angry brownish-red blur as I tumbled into the darkness after her.
Day 163, back to the Sixth:
As we gathered in the near-dark of the Sub-Level Six foyer, I wondered how the others had managed to use the Downtube without the proper clearance. It shouldn’t have been possible. But then again, everything about my life was unbelievable, and to start doubting reality now wouldn’t do myself any favors. The only thing that mattered was that we’d made it this far, and that escape was close at hand.
John dragged Jane off to the side and was whispering something furiously into her ear, periodically shaking her arm, and I was thinking that he had no right to put his hands on her like that. Jane didn’t seem to mind though, she was back to her big-eyed doe self, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand while looking up into John’s strong face like he was the only one who could save her (when all along it was me doing all the saving and John getting all the credit).
Nixa was off to the other side, probably putting as much distance as she could between herself and the other Humans. If we all had to cram into one of those escape pods, she’d have to get used to being pretty darned close to them (I didn’t need a crystal ball to figure out how that would turn out).
When I caught up with her, she was examining some of the spiky writing, running a claw along the wall, a ( quizzical ) expression on her face. ‘I wasn’t sure that this place was real,’ she said. glancing in my direction. I thought that she might be scared (I was). Still, Nixa had come around. She was actually here. Having wanted that so badly, I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel happier with the situation.
Putting my hands in my pockets, I said, ‘Of course it’s real… I’d never lie to you. Not intentionally, I mean.’
She turned back to the writing, ‘You could have told me sooner. I thought that… that you would have wanted to tell me sooner, is all.’
She was right, but you couldn’t tell everybody everything. Not even your best friend. I hadn’t found the courage to tell her about Jane (though I figure she knew all about it anyway) and I definitely hadn’t told her about P’shush’t either. The realization that I’d been cutting Nixa out of my life in favor of J&J and keeping so many things secret from her caused an unexpected wave of anguish to flood through me.
I wasn’t really sure how I’d managed to ( expletive ) everything up in such a short period of time. Like, I hadn’t really done much pro-actively. Everything that happened up until this point had happened to me, rather than something that I’d orchestrated. The result was that now all of our lives were in danger. For a couple of escape pods that might not even work. What the ( curse ) was I doing? If we managed to escape, I promised myself I’d be a better friend. Nixa deserved so much better than me.
J&J finished whatever it was that they were saying to each other. Then John brought Jane over to us, an arm around her shoulders, her eyes darting into every dark corner.
John said, ‘We better get a move on.’
Jane looked up at him, nodding furiously, her eyes red and her face a bit puffy.
‘All right, everyone shut-up for a second,’ I said. And they did, except for Jane’s sniffles. We all strained our ears but heard nothing except for the empty dripping sounds of the Sub-Level. Eventually I decided that we were ok. Nobody had come after us through the tube yet, and it didn’t sound like anything had changed since the last time I’d been here. So I said, ‘Follow me.’
We made our way through the creaking iris-door and I ushered them all down the utility tunnel, pointing at the prongs sticking out of the walls, and sweeping my tablet-light over the rough grates in the floor, shrugging, and pointing a lot, and hoping that everyone saw what I was seeing – that none of this looked very Slixt-y. Nixa was ( curious ) but J&J were too scared to get it. It wasn’t until we got close to the place where I’d discovered the…
( – record redacted: content removed by order of Inquisitor Slub’bump : ref #869-N0K-303-Z )
Despite the time-pressure, I showed them the alien scrawl, pointing out all the things that might be significant. After that, we all just looked at each other in shock. I’d already seen all of it the last time, but now that I had other people to share it with, feeling relieved because I was able to stand there gobsmacked like the rest of them. Even Nixa was ( pensive ) and a little ( disturbed ), but what could we do? In another ten minutes it wouldn’t matter anyway. We’d be safe in an escape pod and far away from the three-ring circus we’d been forced to call home. The Slixt usually didn’t take too long to abduct people, and our window was closing fast.
I urged my friends onward into the dark.
John had to pull Jane away from the discovery. She came along reluctantly, looking back in the dim light and probably wondering like the rest of us, what it all meant, and if there was some way we could have used the information earlier. But I couldn’t see what difference it would have made. And anyway, we were in the home-stretch now.
We got to the second door – it ground open, revealing the wide hallway and the gigantic window beyond. Everyone rushed up to it, Nixa included, and we all looked at the most wonderful sight. Almost the whole of our view was taken up by a giant blue-green planet below us, complete with swirling clouds and a bright sun somewhere behind the ship, lighting up the planet like every ( Xmas ) there ever was. I was marveling at how much it looked like the Earth (but was almost positive it wasn’t) when the alarm sounded.
I nearly ( expletived ) my pants as a piercing siren went off and yellow lights started flashing all over. The voices of angry Slixt rang out in the tunnel, quickly followed by the suck-crunching of armored slugs sliding and grinding their way toward us.
Jane spun toward Nixa and screamed, ‘This is your fault! Isn’t it!’
Nixa froze to the spot. But Jane was moving fast, slapping Nixa hard across the face, the hit ringing out like a gunshot. Nixa didn’t react at all, and all Jane got for her trouble was a bruised-hand that she was currently nursing against her side.
Finally, Nixa’s expression switched to ( shocked ) as she turned fearfully toward the bobbling beams of Slixt flashlights coming in our direction.
John might’ve pissed himself as I grabbed Nixa and Jane’s wrists, tugging them after me down the hall and yelling, ‘Ruuuuuuuuuun!’
Day 163, a few seconds later, and just my luck:
We pelted down the curving hallway, which seemed to circle around the ship an unknowable number of levels above the birthing-ring where I worked, but somewhere below the city. We passed window after window, and side-tunnel after side-tunnel, while the sounds of angry Slixt followed us closely.
Rounding another endless curve, distant beams of light scythed toward us from the direction we were currently running. Trapped between two sets of angry slugs and with no other option, we turned into a small side passage. An iris-hatch opened up in front of us as the Slixt closed the distance. We dove through the gap, led by the wildly swinging shafts of light from our tablets.
Something about the crazy lights, the darkness, and the Slixt’s pursuit snapped something inside me. Then I bravely crumpled onto my hands and knees shaking.
Jane was asking what the ( curse ) was wrong with me. John was tugging on my arm, trying to get me to run. But my mind was busy shattering into a million terrified pieces.
I glimpsed the night of my abduction by the Slixt, yet unable to fully remember. It wasn’t like I could see what happened, but I could feel it… the terror… the noise… a sudden crushing weight – like being run over by steam-roller driven by an elephant, and then no weight at all, screaming upward into the dark night. Only to be swallowed by every fear I’d ever had, plus a few extra.
Nixa shoved John to the side and he stumbled back into the wall, nearly getting impaled by one of those spiky things. And then Nixa’s arm was around my waist as she hoisted me into the air, waving her claws at J&J. They were initially spooked by the violent motion, but quickly got the sub-title which urged them to move.
The Slixt were gaining on us, no thanks to me, and we pounded down the tunnel (I was still over Nixa’s shoulder). We were all looking for a way out, sweeping our beams left and right for something that would save us.
I don’t know who saw it first (John took credit for it later) but there was some kind of bundle of heavy pipes in a small alcove set into the side of the tunnel. Nixa put me gently back on my feet and then we all shoved ourselves into the gap between the back wall and a bunch of stupidly-hot pipes as the Slixt poured through both ends of our tunnel. We managed to cram ourselves in, but it was almost comical how poorly we were hidden. The Slixt wouldn’t need twenty eyes to see us cowering there. But we were good and trapped, so what else were we going to do? As the Slixt got closer we all struggled to control our ragged breathing.
Jane’s head was buried in John’s chest. I was trying desperately to become invisible. We were all squashed together, Nixa’s smooth carapace on one side and John pressed up against the other, something hard in the general area of his thigh, pressing into the back of mine, and no time to worry about what that might be.
Meanwhile, the light-beams attached to the Slixt’s weapons swept this way and that as they advanced down the tunnel. From my vantage point I could see a thin slice of two Slixt as they came sliming to a stop just a tenth of a Triblak’s length away from where we were cowering. Much too close for my liking, but their beams were angled down low and they didn’t seem all that interested in the chase.
( Slixt burping ) ‘See, there’s nothing down here G’lump.’
The other Slixt traced a little circle on the ground with the beam of its light. ‘What were you expecting S’lurf-poop?’
( Slixt sigh ) ‘I don’t know,’ said the one called G’lump, waving a few tentacles distractedly. ‘I didn’t read the full alert message… I just got down here as fast as I could, so that my supervisor could see me “searching for intruders” before sneaking off… what about you? Did you read the alert message?’
‘No,’ admitted S’lurf-poop with a ( shrug ) of its tentacles.
( multiple Slixt laughing )
G’lump shone its beam up the wall opposite our position. I could feel Nixa tensing up. ‘Stupid alarms go off all the time down here, it’s probably nothing,’ it said.
S’lurf-poop directed some eyes back the way we came, waving its own beam down the empty shaft. ‘If someone is down here, and we don’t get them, the Groazl will… it hasn’t had a good meal in years.’
The Groazl? Wtf is a Groazl? That didn’t sound good.
‘Ha! Serves them right. I hope they do get eaten by that thing,’ said G’lump.
( agitated ) ‘Seriously though, why don’t we just find a nice little alcove and have ourselves a quick nap?’
G’lump lowered its voice, ‘Are you crazy? We’ll get in trouble.’
S’lurf-poop didn’t sound very concerned about that. ‘Let the Groazl do its work, we’re getting paid either way… if we curl up in a couple of those disabled escape-pods nobody will even notice.’
‘You think we can get away with that?’
( shifty ) ‘I’ve done this before, trust me… all you have to do is copy an incident-report from last year, change the date, file that, and then we’re good. Who do you think is checking up on those things?’
( relieved ) ‘Ok then. What about the Groazl?’
‘It wouldn’t bother us, would it? There’s a natural order to things.’
‘I guess so,’ replied G’lump, and after another cursory sweep of their beams, they slimed their way back up the tunnel.
Day 163, a half-hour later:
We were all cramped up and much too close together for any of our liking, but had to make sure that the Slixt were well and truly gone before easing ourselves into the open. Everyone but Nixa was rubbing their sore limbs and looking miserable. Nixa just looked pissed off.
‘This was a trap!’ hissed John, stupidly.
Yes it was. But I hadn’t told P’shush’t about our plans, and wasn’t about to mention the Slixt Controller to anyone else just then either. ‘Yeah, well, you didn’t have to come… how the ( curse ) was I supposed to know the Slixt would show up?’
Nixa turned to us, ‘Let’s just get out of here… while we still can.’
Jane padded over to Nixa and touched her shoulder. Everyone tensed up. I thought for a second that Nixa might rip Jane’s arm off and beat her to death with it, but she didn’t. Jane (wisely sensing the danger she was in) quickly removed her hand and said to Nixa, ‘Uh… I’m sorry.’
‘For what?’ snapped Nixa, her clicks too loud in the empty tunnel.
Jane flushed, even in the semi-darkness you could tell she was beet-red. ‘I… I thought that you ratted us out back there.’
Nixa tilted her head at Jane, ‘And now?’
Jane cleared her throat, sniffling. ‘Well, the way I see it… is that we’d all be dead right now if you did tip off the Slixt, but in the end, you helped us… even though I hit you.’
( disbelieving ) ‘So that’s your version of an ( apology )?’ asked Nixa.
Jane shrugged, ‘No, I guess it isn’t… and we haven’t grown to like you… right John?’
‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Let’s just get out of here already.’
Nobody had anything useful to add to that statement.
We made our way as quietly as we could back to the outer ring. That nice-looking planet wasn’t in the window anymore. The Slixt’s ship must have moved off already, and whatever chance we might have had to escape was long gone, but it didn’t matter though, did it? The Slixt said that the escape pods had been disabled. They knew about them alright.
Our spirits were low, and we were very much on edge since we still had to make our way back to the city and act like nothing had happened. It took us a good two hours to creep our way out of the Sub-level and find an elevator shaft that wasn’t guarded (to use the term loosely) by dozing Slixt. But we made it out, and that after that we all went our separate ways.
I’m not going to lie, the whole thing was a real ( curse-show ).
It was only due to the Slixt’s inherent laziness that we’d escaped at all. But that didn’t mean we’d be so lucky the next time, and this meant that there definitely wouldn’t be a next time. And, you know, the escape pods didn’t work anyway.
I was back to being stuck here. Forever.
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