Day 164, forever alone:
Sleep had proven impossible – and a long night spent watching re-runs of “Humans are Dumb” did nothing to cut through the dread that had seeped into every corner of my mind. The “great escape” had come to nothing after all and I was expecting a Slixt “togetherness patrol” to come knocking on my door any minute, dragging me away into the night, never to be seen again.
That might be the best outcome given how I was feeling. Some kind retribution felt deserved. I couldn’t figure out how the Slixt found us down on Sub-level Six, and how they could have let us just slip through their fingers when they had us dead-to-rights.
I’d been checking my messages every five seconds for hours, but the only message was from Jerkface who demanded to know why I hadn’t shown up for work yesterday. Nothing from any of my “friends”. It was likely that none of them would ever want to talk to me again. At best, I’d let them down, and at worst, nearly gotten all of us killed.
Then, sometime very early in the morning (or very late, depending on your point of view) an incoming message chimed and I sprang off the couch, half-dazed, sending my tablet skidding into the bathroom. I had to chase after it, but not before slamming my shoulder painfully into the door-frame, landing in a heap while the tablet chimed a second time.
The first alert wasn’t a message at all. It was much worse than that. Long ago I’d set a reminder, one that I now regretted more than I can explain: it was set to alert me on my birthday.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, curled up on the bathroom floor, nursing my bruised shoulder and fragile mental-state, I thought it might have been the dumbest thing I’d ever done.
I was another Earth-year older but none the wiser for it, and there was no telling how many more birthdays I’d be celebrating here on the ship, alone. What should have been a happy day was just another reminder of my total and utter failure as a Human being.
By this point in my life I should have had everything figured out. Back home, I probably would have been preparing for whatever came after high-school, assuming that I graduated at all. Of course, that wouldn’t happen now. I’d missed so many classes that I was pretty sure I’d been expelled months ago. My old classmates would soon be celebrating their journey into the next phase of their lives, but not me. All I’d managed to accomplish was to cause them pain by my sudden and unexplained disappearance from their lives. It might have bothered me more, but I knew how people were back on Earth.
At first, everyone would have been shocked, wondering what had become of me. Most of them would have expected the worst, but they’d have no idea what really happened. But people were people. A few weeks would go by, and someone would have started dating someone else, or a new intrigue would have come up, and all that remained of me in their memories would have been a fun/mysterious story to tell at parties. Just another cautionary tale, a footnote in their otherwise happy Earth-bound lives.
I could only imagine what my family would have gone through, wondering how quickly they’d gotten over my disappearance – assuming that they thought about me at all…
But none of that mattered right then, because the second message was from P’shush’t, ordering me down to its office for a nice little chat.
Day 164, a few hours later:
I wasn’t entirely sure if I had the courage to go meet the Slixt. If it didn’t already know exactly what I’d been up to the previous day, it would have its suspicions, and therefore would know that I had failed to inform on J&J (or myself for that matter). There was no way to hide that fact that I’d not only ignored the mission that the Slixt ordered me to perform, but I’d also gone above and beyond mere youthful rebelliousness and ventured into ringleader territory right under its slimy nose-holes.
It took me a long time to make it out of my apartment. I was filled with an overwhelming sense that this was the end of the line for me. Strangely, it almost had a calming effect. Like, this was always the way that things were meant to have ended up for me, one way or another.
So I cleaned my bedroom and straightened up the living-room as much as possible. Taking it all in for one last time, I wondered if I would ever see my place again. Then I swiped the door open and headed down to the market. The only glimmer of hope was that my friends might not have been rounded up by the Slixt yet and that I could figure out a way to save them.
It didn’t take me very long to get there, but every step felt slow and tired, like I was wading through water. P’shush’t was on the inside again – this time the bar was empty except for the Slixt in its booth, and me nervously sliding onto a cushion across from it.
Seconds ticked by, and no other Slixt came storming in with weapons raised, ready to take me away. If anything, P’shush’t seemed completely relaxed, and possibly even ( happy ) about something. I guessed that the slugs were taking immense pleasure in my misfortune, and I wasn’t far wrong.
( Slixt beaming smiles ) ‘Well, if it isn’t my favorite Human! … Have yourself a seat and order anything you like. It’s on me.’
The Slixt had a way of pissing me off. ‘That’s just great. Really great… laugh it up P’shush’t… I guess you’ve got me now, and probably the others too. But the one thing I don’t think I can stomach anymore is you having fun at my expense, so whatever you’re going to do to me, you might as well just get it over with.’
P’shush’t leaned its oozing upper body toward me, tentacles coiling and uncoiling, still ( smiling ). ‘Ah, you think I’m going to punish you and your stupid ( friends )? Why would I do that when you’ve performed your role so perfectly so far?’
That was unexpected. ‘What the ( curse ) are you talking about?’
The Slixt leaned back again, waving a tentacle at the bartender across the room for another round of poison-spirits, and said, ‘Ha! Don’t be modest my little Human tool. You’ve proven yourself craftier than a Hugfrump’s brain-stalk and more insidious than a Bliskeen parasite! We aren’t going to punish you! Not when you’ve done such a great job getting the Humans down to Sub-level Six! In fact, I watched the whole thing on Slix-cam, it was simply marvelous!’
‘You mean? …’
( Slixt laughing ) ‘Yes! Yes! Exactly! Your brain will catch up in due time, but do your best not to overstrain it on my account. I’ll ask you a question: what happens when you give a Human a wheel? Don’t try to come up with an answer, it’ll take too long – I’ll tell you: they jump right into it and start running! Here’s a free tip for you, the wheel goes around but you don’t actually get anywhere. I’ve blown your mind, haven’t I? Nevermind that. It’s amazing, really, how you convinced the others to follow you. Brilliant! Are you sure you don’t want a drink?’
‘No… no dammit… are you telling me you knew about Sub-level Six the whole time? That you somehow set me up? That’s crazy!’
The more outraged I became, the more P’shush’t enjoyed itself. ‘You think we can do all this…’ it said, waving its tentacles to indicate the city outside, ‘… and we can’t arrange for you to accidentally discover something on a day when you’re already distracted and out of sorts? Do you really think that you found your way there by mistake? That the error message granting you access to the fake escape pods went unnoticed? I’m simply amazed! Humans really are ( dumb ), aren’t they? … Yet you’re so clever in a purely animal sense. It’s like your whole species has devolved from a much better species of beings. It’s why you’re all so perfect for what we need!’
Stupid smug slug. ‘And what do you need me for, exactly, if not to prevent my friends from escaping?’
‘Mope all you want Human, but you should be happy! You’re not exactly a ( master-mind ) you silly Gorfnork, but you are effective! Ha! Don’t worry yourself with escape. It can’t be done. It’s only important to the Slixt that you do what we want, whether you want to or not. Don’t you realize that all of your pathetic little attempts at obstruction, of undermining our greatness, only further our needs?’
There were a number of things that I wanted to say, but I wanted my friends to remain safe, and therefore chose my words carefully. ‘Can you at least tell me why you’re doing this? Why abduct us? Why the city? Why any of it?’
P’shush’t gave me a ( frank stare ) from a half-dozen eyes, its remaining ones appearing to be asleep. It patted my arm with a tentacle, and then started laughing again.
P’shush’t said, ‘Humans are too concerned with the “why”… Why this? Why that? …. Well, why not? Answer me that – actually, don’t. It wouldn’t change anything if I told you the why. It’s better for everyone if you just do what we ask, and then you can get back to your life… be a productive member of society. Go home to your bed, go to your job, share your dreams and your sad existence with your little ( friend )… Forget about everything else. Those other Humans are a waste of your time. They won’t last long. Not after we’re done with them… and you, you’re not so bad for a Human. Just don’t get too attached to the others. No, they’re up to something, and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the Slixt… If you haven’t noticed already, challenging our supremacy can only bring you grief. So accept things for how they are Human. We can’t be defeated by a few ( idiots ).’
I had a reply for that at least, ‘Well, what makes you think that what you did to the ( – redacted – ) won’t end up happening to the Slixt?’
A few of its open eyes winked at me. ‘The same trick won’t work twice Human. You can’t use our own weapons against us. And besides, you don’t have the ( glands ) to pull it off, so forget it. Just let it all go. Live your life. Your service to us won’t be forgotten.’
‘I’m not some pawn in your ( expletive ) game.’
‘It doesn’t matter what you think, does it? No matter what you decide to do, the result will be the same, one way or another… only one path leads to a happy life for you, and all other roads lead to… well, I’ll just let you think about what will happen if you fail. I’m told that your kind has enough brain-cells to process that much, at least.’
It took everything I had to hold my tongue.
P’shush’t relaxed into its seat. ‘You’ll see in time Human… just don’t do anything overly stupid – and I know that’s asking a lot from you… Keep your segments to the ground and it will all work out for you in the end.’
But I’d had enough. ‘I think it’s you that doesn’t get it P’shush’t, I’m not helping the Slixt. Do what you want with me, I don’t care!’ I said (even though I cared an awful lot what happened to me).
‘Have it your way Human,’ said P’shsuh’t ( haughtily ). ‘As of right… now… your ( insect friend ) is getting some bad news, let’s see how you deal with that one.’
I slammed my hand down on the table. ‘Wait, what did you just do? Take your anger out on me, not her – Nixa has nothing to with this! It isn’t fair!’
‘Nothing is fair Human. Now, if you don’t want to make your life even more difficult, then I suggest you get back to work.’
I was so frustrated I could have screamed, or cried, or torn my hair out. ‘I still don’t have a clue what you want from me for ( curse’s ) sake!’
The Slixt was ( dismissive ). ‘For the last time, just keep doing what you’re doing. Thanks to your good work, the Humans trust you now; especially after that escape attempt. We couldn’t have pulled it off better ourselves. Really well played. Now come over here for a moment will you… that’s it… now turn around.’
I half expected the Slixt to pat me on the ass and tell me to run along, but it picked something off of my backpack instead. I was horrified when I realized that it was a slimy Slixt eyeball. It had somehow camouflaged itself as a bit of dirty canvas (gross). Also, while I knew that my backpack was getting a bit old and ratty, it was very insulting to think I hadn’t noticed an eyeball stuck to it. I didn’t know how long I’d been carrying around the Slixt’s eye and almost hurled when P’shush’t popped it into an empty socket.
The general shock of the whole thing aside, there was something I couldn’t figure out. ‘Why did you reveal that just now P’shush’t? Like, it’s totally disgusting… but why? I would have never known that there was a ( freaking ) eyeball glued to me… just yuck… but… this seems like a thing you’d want kept secret.’
( Slixt sneering ) ‘And you’ll keep that way if you know what’s good for you and your friends – I just wanted to remind you that we have our eyes everywhere. No matter what you try, you will always fail. The Slixt are mightier than you can imagine!’
‘Then why do you need me? If you’re so powerful… and know everything… then why this elaborate charade?’
( eyes narrowing ) ‘At last you ask a good question Human. Maybe you aren’t a total ( waste of space ) after all… why indeed? That’s what the Slixt want to know! What we need to know! And you will be the one to discover it! The Humans that came before you didn’t work out at all like we had hoped. Neither did you for that matter, at first. Well, as long as you’re useful you have a future here. Now go and find out what the new Humans up to and why we don’t know about it!’
With that said, P’shush’t shooed me away and people started coming into the bar again. When I looked back, the Slixt gave me another ( angry ) go-away wave of its tentacles and I headed towards work, late, again, to think about what I’d learned.
The Slixt’s arrogance was beyond aggravating, and its willingness to reveal so much to me was unexpected (and probably an indication that I wouldn’t survive to the end of the story – villains only told you their plans or showed their face when they were sure you weren’t going to make it) (sob).
It proved that we were all just pawns in the larger game the Slixt were playing (like there was ever any doubt). So much so that they were confident that no matter what direction the pieces moved on the board, it was always their tentacles that controlled our actions. But P’shush’t’s words revealed a weakness that I was determined to exploit in the coming days. The most difficult part would be finding a way to use the strings to control the puppet-masters instead of the other way around.
I also knew I wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to do that. But I knew someone who was.
Day 164, afternoon:
I arrived at the Species Transition office, trying to act as casual as possible given that I’d missed another day of work.
Jerkface was fuming. ‘You didn’t show up at all yesterday…’
Somehow with everything that been going on, I hadn’t even had time to come up with a lame excuse. ‘Er… sick?’ I ventured.
Wheezy gave a loud snorting-cough and then Jerkface was up in my business, telling me off, the gist of which was that he just couldn’t accept any more of my ( expletive ). He said that I should pack my things and go home; my services were no longer required.
I was slinging my pack over my shoulder when Slorp slimed into the room, looking groggy.
( angry ) ‘It’s not time to go home yet Human, put that ( backpack ) away.’
Jerkface protested, but Slorp cut him off, ‘And why are you two standing around like a bunch of Nerfnerks? Get back to work! All of you! I have an important meeting that I need to attend, but when I get back, you’d better be busy!’
We all knew that Slorp’s important meeting was probably a twelve-hour nap, but this did little to calm the situation down once the Slixt left. Jerkface was livid, shaking with rage and biding his time until Slorp was well and truly out of earshot.
Wheezy and Jerkface crowded me into a corner, and I thought they were going to hit me. Jerkface was ( suspicious ), fuming, ‘Slorp is protecting you… why?’
Wheezy jumped in, ‘Are you ( ratting us out )? For stealing? Is that it? We’re all in on it together Human, I’m not going down for this alone!’
Jerkface added, ‘We need this job! Where are we going to find an easier job?’
I didn’t like them being mad at me. Things were awful enough already. ‘No its… uh… I think that… like… that it’s…’
‘What?’ demanded Jerkface.
Of all the aliens I could think of, Jerkface and Wheezy were the last ones I’d want to confide any sort of secret to, but I was so worn down by the Slixt, by J&J, and even Nixa’s constant disapproval, that I had to say something.
‘I’m in trouble,’ I said quietly.
Jerkface and Wheezy exchanged ( questioning ) glances and then backed away to confer in garbled whispers. After a minute of that, Jerkface came over and said to me, ‘Grab your bag and come with us… no, don’t worry… we’re not going to eat you… Humans are terrible eating, everybody knows that. Now come on.’
We made sure that Slorp was asleep and then made our way up into the city. We weaved through a few side streets into a shadowy alleyway lined with seedy bars, sitting down at a table on the sidewalk outside. Wheezy went inside while Jerkface just stared at me silently, looking jerk-y. A few minutes later, Wheezy emerged with three glasses and a jug of pink bubbly stuff, pouring a round for each of us.
I gave it a tentative sniff. Ugh. It smelled like turpentine and old socks.
‘Have a drink, it won’t kill you. Not today anyway,’ said Jerkface, clinking his glass against Wheezy’s, then waving it in my direction. Eventually he realized that I wasn’t going to “cheers” him back and drank it down in one shot.
Wheezy was topping up Jerkface’s cup while I considered trying mine. ‘So, out with it then… tell us what’s been going Human,’ they said.
Could I actually tell them? (this is Jerkface and Wheezy we’re talking about) I shook my head and took a long pull of the drink. It was potent stuff, but didn’t taste as bad as expected, though it did burn all the way down, causing me to scrunch up my face like I’d been eating lemons.
Wheezy wheezed, and Jerkface slapped me on the shoulder. I drank some more and motioned for Wheezy to pour me another, which I took in one gulp, pointing at the jug again.
Then I told them.
Not all of it. I couldn’t do that. In fact, I did my best to come across like a distant observer who was recounting events that had happened to someone else. But between the effects of the drink and their probing questions, they ended up getting all the information I never wanted to tell anyone except Nixa.
When I was done, they sat there quietly for a few minutes, sipping their drinks while I worried that I’d just confessed to the wrong people.
Wheezy was pensive. Jerkface stared into his drink. With a jerk-y ( sigh ) he asked, ‘So you’re really going to ( rat out ) the other Humans?’
‘Aren’t they your friends?’ Wheezy added.
And then Jerkface said, ‘That’s… dark…’
I took another sip. Burped. ‘It’s not like I want to… besides, everything that’s happened so far has happened without me actually doing anything to make it happen. If that makes sense? I’ve kind of blundered my way into this situation. So I figure that with any luck, I might be able to blunder my way back out again… that’s the plan, at least.’
Wheezy ( harrumphed ).
‘So what are you going to do?’ asked Jerkface.
I sat my empty glass down, head spinning. ‘To be honest, I really don’t know. I’m hoping that I’ll think of something…’
The way they exchanged looks broadcast exactly what they thought about me coming up with a good plan. But there was something else that passed between them as well.
Wheezy said, ‘Well Human… when you figure it out… we’ll help you.’
Jerkface drained the last of his drink and stood up, shooting me an ( unknown expression ). Then he said, ‘Just try to get to work on time from now on, ok?’
Day 164, the end of a terrible, horrible, very bad day:
I was lying on the couch, my head pounding from the spirits I’d drank earlier with Jerkface and Wheezy. It’d been quite a day, but at least it was almost over. Now I could curl up onto the couch and sleep off the last of my intoxication.
I couldn’t believe that my co-workers were on my side. It would have been easy to convince myself that they were all part of P’shush’t’s plot, but this didn’t seem likely. There was actually a very small chance that Jerkface and Wheezy might be decent people.
Maybe I was still too drunk to see things clearly?
The door-chime rang, loudly, grating like a buzz-saw in my sore head, and it took considerable effort to stumble over to the release panel and swish the door open.
Nixa stood there, framed in the dim hallway light, looking as serious as ever, holding a bottle of something green and two glasses. I was a bit offended that she brought her own cups, clearly expecting that I wouldn’t have any clean ones (and also a bit irked that she was right).
I stood to the side and she accepted my disheveled appearance in stride as she walked past me, setting down her things on my coffee table.
‘I don’t think I can drink anymore today… and before you ask, I didn’t plan on drinking, it just sort of happened, but I’m just glad to see you… and… uh… ( burp ) …don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you here, and is that ( booze )?’
She did the head-tilty thing at me. ‘I’m sorry, should I go?’
‘No, not at all. Please stay, I’m glad to see you, but what’s the occasion?’
‘It was in your file – the Earth anniversary of your birth, I was… led to believe that you Humans celebrated that, for some reason, but it looks like you’ve already been celebrating,’ ( irritated ).
I tried to smile but ended up burping again instead, feeling the ominous beginnings of a vomiting-session creeping acidly up the back of my throat. Wrinkling up my face and stifling another puke-burp between my lips, I waved her over to the couch before flopping onto my side and pointing at the wicked green stuff in the bottle that she brought. ‘I don’t think I can…’ I said, reaching for the bottle anyway, and knocking one of the glasses under the couch and leaving it there. I didn’t want to know what was under there anymore, but whatever was evolving beneath the cushions, if they developed a space-program, then I’d be saved by default.
I burped again.
Nixa looked ( concerned ) ‘Are you sure that you want me to stay?’
I nodded over-emotively, sending my head spinning, and said that I did want that. The staying thing. Next thing I knew, I was crying into her shoulder, unable to stop… wishing I’d told her everything that had been going on, and hating myself for being too afraid to lose her friendship to come clean.
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