Day 168, coming clean:
I made my way out of the market, but didn’t head straight home. I texted Nixa, Jerkface, and Wheezy to meet me at the seedy bar where we usually went after recycling the stuff that we nicked from work.
They got there ahead of me. The drinks had already been poured. Nixa was eyeing her glass dubiously, but when she saw me she took a long pull. She really did have some kind of sixth-sense for trouble. I sat down and flashed her a smile, but she remained ( suspicious ).
‘No Jane and John?’ she asked a little too casually.
‘Definitely not,’ I said sitting down.
( contented ) ‘Well this is nice,’ she said happily.
Jerkface clinked his glass against mine. The mood was really upbeat. Or it had been, until I started talking. It was then that I came clean to Nixa, telling her everything and, while I did, she drank, then got angrier, and quieter, then drank some more, and then got even angrier.
When I finished, I flashed her a sheepish grin. This only made things worse. I had been hoping that this was as bad as things could get. Now that I’d managed to explain what had happened, and why, she would have to understand why I had been acting like such a ( cursed-expletive-unmentionable ).
I was conscious that out of all the people I knew, Nixa’s calm and responsible personality would always shine through her anger and she’d find a way to help us all turn the tables on the Slixt without demolishing half the city in the process. But Nixa was having none of it (like, who could have blamed her in the moment?). Nixa was the very last one to know what had been going on when she should have been the first. There was a lot for her to get up to speed with, and the fact that I told her that I was just trying to protect her did little to bring her over to my way of seeing things.
I’d kind of ruined her life, so to be fair she was well within her rights to be a little resentful. Meanwhile, Jerkface and Wheezy were smart enough to sit back on the sidelines quietly while this drama played out.
Eventually Nixa asked me in a flat voice, ‘So what are you going to do?’
I said I wasn’t sure.
‘You’re not sure?’
I fidgeted with the coaster under my glass, avoiding looking at her. ‘I guess not,’ I said.
Her voice was very low, ‘Do you know how many people will die because of this madness? Isn’t it obvious that you should just tell the Slixt what’s going on and accept the consequences? So they can put a stop to it? Before it goes any further? But no… of course not! You have to save your Human friends above all else. Well, let me ask you this: what have they done except bring trouble into our lives? I honestly can’t see why you’re trying to protect them… if they try to do what you’re telling me they’re planning… then they’re going to die… horribly. Not just them, but everyone who helps them. How can you not see that?’
I didn’t say anything.
‘It wasn’t enough for you to ruin my life after everything that I did for you?’
That stung. ‘I didn’t want any of this to happen…’
‘I don’t believe you! You’re an immature, ( specist ), Human, ( grub-waster )! Look how you treat your friends! With your… your… ( nick-names ) and your aggravating way of… ugh!… and you think that you owe more to those two ( pieces of excrement ) than to us? Why can’t you just be happy with the way that things are! You can’t change them! We were happy with the way that things were!’
While all this was going on, Jerkface and Wheezy busied themselves by studiously scrutinizing some passersby. I just stared at the table and said nothing, feeling miserable.
Nixa got up quickly, saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
And then she left.
Wheezy poured me another round. I got home very late and very drunk. Nixa was pretending to be asleep on the couch but I could feel her disapproval radiating off of her in hot waves.
I stumbled into bed and told myself that she just needed some more time to process things… that everything couldn’t have been all my fault.
Day 175, truce?:
Nixa was still staying at my place, but where we had once been close friends, we were now strangers inhabiting the foggy ground between the front-lines of a war that we didn’t start, but were now forced to choose a side in. There was no peace to be had, only a tentative cease-fire, ever in danger of being violated by the slightest action or misfired word.
When I got home from work most nights, she wasn’t there. She would usually be gone before I got up. The times I did see her, she would just shake her head and leave the apartment, or turn over on the couch and pull her thin blanket over her head.
I was worried, but as long as she was willing to stay with me, she would eventually come around. She always did.
Day 191, down and down:
The days and weeks went by. Nixa’s mood was starting to concern me more and more. Lately, she’d stopped looking for jobs, opting instead to spend hours on the couch looking grim and weak. Any attempt I made to talk to her was parried by an angry click. I had no choice but to watch while she sank deeper and deeper into the darkness gathering around her.
I tried everything I could think of to bring her around, but nothing worked, hoping that time would heal all wounds, and that somehow she’d find her way to forgiveness.
Maybe I could come up with a way to make things right between us.
Day 196, preparations:
Meanwhile, I had been extra busy at work. We knew that the big day when the city would erupt in violence and civil-war was coming. I can honestly say that none us was particularly looking forward to what happened after that. Then again, the city had always been divided.
First, there were the people who supported the Slixt and did everything they could to make sure that the system churned onward so we could continue playing their sick game. Then there were those who just kept their heads down and tried to get by as best they could. The ones who knew that it was better to survive in whatever way they could than to die for nothing. Before I got involved, this was the group Nixa had been in, and probably still was. That left an unknown number of people who were just waiting for the day when it all kicked off. People weren’t meant to be kept in cages. And the Slixt knew well how dangerous it could be for them if an open revolt broke out.
Jerkface, Wheezy, and I spent a lot of time discussing what might happen. None of the possible outcomes were very reassuring. We had lots of theories, but were all afraid of how far the Slixt were likely to go to restore order once the first shots were fired (I wouldn’t have put anything past the slugs).
Jerkface was all for picking up a gun and letting the Slixt have it, but I reminded him that it wouldn’t be that simple. The sad fact was that many other citizens would actually help defend the Slixt, and that would mean that the slugs wouldn’t be the only casualties in the war. Besides, the Slixt’s armaments and defenses had never been tested, but they were rumored to be legendary. The loss of life would be staggering if a lot of people decided to join in with the fighting.
Wheezy was less gung-ho about the whole thing. Sure, they liked the idea of overthrowing the Slixt, but they didn’t feel that the odds were remotely on our side, and that the best thing would be to let other people do the fighting, and then figure out what to do next based on who ended up winning. All the same, they were willing to offer whatever support they could (like stealing things from work) because it was good to support the rebels even if they weren’t willing to die for the cause themselves.
That was another problem. I told my friends about J&J’s huge arsenal and that as far as things went, we had no way of knowing how many rebels were in the city waiting for their chance to wage war. At worst, it was a rebellion of two… just Jane and John (and maybe Jerkface because he had become so keen). I didn’t think that I’d be doing much fighting myself; I’d probably just end up shooting the good-side by accident.
We all agreed that it would be better when Nixa came around to reality and helped us figure out what we should actually do about the situation. I was pretty convinced that she wanted me to inform on J&J but I was still hoping that she’d be able and willing to come up with another option.
One way or another, whether we wanted it to or not, the “big day” was coming.
In preparation for this, we were stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down and recycling it into fat stacks of resource credits. Jerkface would give me the lion’s share every time, “for the cause”, he said, and then I would go back to my place and stuff them into the couch (in the rare times when Nixa would skulk out of the apartment for a few hours). I couldn’t bring myself to give them to J&J. They had enough resources as it was.
I thought that Nixa was right about a lot of things, but everything was spiraling downward and we were all powerless to stop it. I supposed that I could just do what needed to be done and tell P’shush’t what J&J were up to, but this was something I couldn’t bring myself to do.
Besides, I had to admit that there was a part of me that wanted them to succeed.
Day 198, pressure point:
P’shush’t had been inundating me with messages, demanding an update. I knew that I couldn’t keep avoiding the Slixt forever, and that if I continued to be obstructive only bad things would happen. Enough of those had happened already.
I figured that I’d ask Nixa for help. Like extending an olive-branch. But whenever I tried to talk to her, she just pulled the blanket over hear head and ignored me.
I messaged P’shush’t back: ( I’m close to something big – just give me more time. )
Day 201, a crack in the ice:
That night Nixa made room for me on the couch. There was a new episode of “Humans are Dumb” on the nets and she agreed to watch it with me, but I just couldn’t get into the robot’s antics the way that I used to. The show just didn’t seem funny anymore.
Bleep had dressed up like a Human woman and was pushing a baby-pram through the loading docks. A few minutes later the “Human woman” and her baby were trapped in an airlock while hapless dock-workers tried frantically to open the inner door, but Bloop had overridden the controls remotely and it was only a matter of time before the Humans watched the “woman” and her baby get sucked out into space – to everyone’s horror, including mine, even though I knew it was fake.
Nixa was watching the screen and not me, ( disturbed ) ‘Why do you watch this?’
It was the first thing she’d said to me in days, which was great except for the fact that she’d chosen such a tricky question. I didn’t know how best to answer, unsure what I was currently feeling, exactly – but it was pretty bad.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I guess that it used to be funny, but now… how do I put this? Bleep n’ Bloop’s show was the only way for me to see other Humans. I was desperate for anything from home, to keep me going. And later, after J&J came, I felt guilty about a lot of things, wondering why I couldn’t have been a better friend to them… Like helping them like you helped me in those early days. But the Humans turned out to be awful, and I hated myself for thinking that. A lot of complicated feelings rose to the surface. You couldn’t be expected to understand. But they’re my age and… I wanted them to like me, even though I didn’t really like them back.’
Nixa thought about that. ‘Do you think that those Humans are real or just something that the Slixt came up with to mess with you?’
At first I wasn’t sure if she meant the people in “Humans are Dumb” or Jane and John. She must have meant the ones on the show, but nothing could be discounted in this crazy place. Even so, I was fairly certain that J&J were real Humans.
Finally I said, ‘As far as I know, the only Humans in the universe are stuck on Earth. I guess you’d probably call us a “primitive species”, and you’d be right to do it. We’re not so great at taking care of ourselves, or being peaceful for that matter… space is a scary enough place without my people going from planet to planet leaving a trail of ruin behind them. So, I guess they’re fake, and the real ones aren’t much better. But in the end, does it matter?’
( sad ), ‘I never thought I would say this, but you’re right; the real world is a terrible place.’
‘Nixa, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for everything that’s happened… listen, I’ve been a terrible friend, but everything that I did was for a good reason. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. At first, the only thing that I could think of was escape. But then things got complicated. We became friends, and I wasn’t expecting that. At our first meeting, you nearly scared me out of my pants, but you stuck by me, and slowly things got better. And then they started getting all ( cursed-up ).
‘I went to P’shush’t in secret to bargain for the job on the birthing-level, figuring I could do for others what you did for me, only sooner. I wanted to make the transition into this world as painless as possible for newcomers, but didn’t realize that I’d made a deal with the ( devil ). The Slixt set me up from the beginning, and I was too scared to tell you because I knew you wouldn’t like it. But what could I do? It was already done and the Slixt made sure that I knew not to bite the hand that fed me. That they could hurt me if I refused… I thought that I’d lose both you and my job. But that’s not how it went, the Slixt took out their anger on you, and it’s all my fault.
‘It was then that the Slixt maneuvered me into discovering Sub-Level Six… they brought J&J into the picture for their own reasons, but it wasn’t for my benefit. I was so happy to see other Humans, and had feelings for both of them, which was dumb because it only caused more problems. And then, everything went crazy, and the longer I took to tell you what was going on, the harder it became… You were my only friend, and whenever I tried telling you, I just couldn’t find the words. And I didn’t want to lose you… yeah, none of that makes it “ok”, but I can only tell you why I did what I did. After P’shush’t punished you to keep me in line, I had to make things right. But then J&J sprang their crazy plan on me, and… it was absolutely ( expletived up ) for me not to tell you… but I was ashamed.
‘J&J’s plan might not be any better than suicide, and I definitely don’t want anyone to die. But this revolution may be our only hope. Or maybe the thing that will kill us all. I wish I knew, and you don’t owe me anything for how I’ve treated you, but I care about you, I really do, and if anyone can find a way out of this mess, it’s you… you can hate me for asking, but I need your help…’
Nixa examined her claws, ( click-sighed ), looked up at the ceiling, and said, ‘I told you about my people once before…
‘In some ways, they’re like Humans, but totally different in others. I’m not sure how many species you have on your planet, but on ours, there are very few, and it’s because of my people. It seems that both of our species are doomed to destroy everything they touch… only, I wanted to escape all that… I thought that I’d left it all behind, but maybe it’s like that ( destiny ) concept that you always go on about like it’s a real thing. Maybe the life that I wanted was just an illusion, like “Humans are Dumb”… who knows, maybe some aliens are watching us on their screens right now…’
She might have been right. ‘Do you think so?’
( alien shrug ) ‘No, I think this is it for us… the Slixt, the city, all of it, for better or worse… but I was telling you about my people. Our biology requires a high rate of reproduction, and we’re driven to use up all of the resources in the ( eco-system ). When they’re used up, we colonize more and more worlds. But it’s never enough. We have a saying: “The ( world ) will never run out of Cht’xst’tk-ians but Cht’xst’tk-ians will always run out of ( worlds ).”
‘That’s all we hunger for in the end. And you know what? There was a time when I too thought that this was a good thing. But it never was, and when my people exiled me… I couldn’t find myself. I’d never been away from my own people for very long. I’m not sure we even have a proper word for ( independence ). But somehow I found it, and built a life here. It’s what I wanted for you too, because the alternative was… and I don’t even know why I’m telling you this… I just want to know if this is what you really want? Another war? More death? Who knows how many people will get hurt if you go down this path.’
I had to think about that. After a while I said, ‘A part of me feels like I never fought for anything in my life and… that if I have to die… that maybe it should be for something worth dying for…’
‘That’s so ( stupid ).’
‘Maybe, but I don’t know anymore. I think that there might not be a way back to how it was, like the revolution’s going to happen no matter what. P’shush’t said as much. But I don’t think that the Slixt meant a civil war. All I know is that you’re the only one who can help me.’
( resigned ) ‘You don’t want my help. You want to convince me that what you want is the right thing to do, but I can’t give you that. I think that this is wrong, but I’m not sure what I think matters anymore. Whether or not you try to stop it, I agree that war is inevitable. Whether it’s on my people’s ( worlds ) or here on this ship, it always comes down to the same thing, and I think that I’ve finally realized that I can’t escape it. That some things are chosen for you, and when that happens, you have to do the only thing that’s left for you to do.’
‘Nixa… I’m so sorry.’
She pulled her blanket around her and said, ‘I’m going to sleep.’
Day 202, lie low:
Jane appeared out of nowhere while I was queuing for the Downtube. She looked happy and carefree as she came up beside me and grabbed my arm.
Leaning in, she whispered, ‘Smart move keeping a low profile. I’ll let you know when it’s time.’
Then she melted into the morning crowd and I was left hoping that I’d never hear from her again.
Day 205, time had run out:
Nixa wasn’t there when I got home, which wasn’t surprising since she was avoiding me, but there was nothing to be done about it. Even so, her absence was convenient because I had a fresh stack of resource credits to hide in the couch.
Unzipping the cushion, I found that my stash was gone. The obvious explanation was that Nixa had taken the chits. It wasn’t like I had come up with a super-clever hiding place or anything, and she slept on that couch every night. She practically never left the thing any more. Still, there was no denying that both the credits and Nixa had disappeared.
But why did she take them? And what now?
Day 206, should I, or shouldn’t I?:
Asking Nixa what was going on proved impossible because she was angry and resentful, and I couldn’t think of a way to accuse her of stealing things that weren’t mine to begin with.
In the end, I figured that I was no better than the Slixt: what haven’t I stolen from her already?
Day 207, I stood on the shore while you drowned:
Of all the things that I’d been preparing for, it wasn’t this.
It had been another long day and it was getting difficult to hide the amount of things we were stealing from work to fund the cause (I couldn’t bring myself to tell Jerkface and Wheezy that Nixa had taken the resource chits). Even so, we redoubled our efforts while trying to keep Slorp ignorant of our activities.
The city felt like a pressure cooker, but it could have just been on account of what I knew was going on. To anyone else there would have been no outward signs of a great resistance waiting to strike. The streets seemed emptier at night and an increasing number of Slixt “togetherness patrols” slimed-up the major intersections, huddled in groups of three, keeping their many eyes on everything.
I was in a particularly foul mood when I opened the door to my apartment, my arms full of groceries, along with some white grubs that could be used to bribe Nixa into talking to me again.
A weird smell told me immediately that something was terribly wrong. Dropping the bags in the hallway, I rushed into the dark living-room and switched on the lights to find Nixa unmoving on the couch, her limbs all twisted up, with frothy-green bubbles rasping out of her mouth.
Panicked, I ran over to see what was wrong.
Everything was wrong!
I desperately tried to wake her up, shaking her, begging, pleading her to wake up, but nothing worked.
Her carapace was hot and red, which gave me a sliver of hope. But then she started twitching and jerking her limbs. And then just as suddenly, she went very still again. She wasn’t dead yet, but I didn’t know how long that would last.
What do I do? Just tell me what to do!
It was then that I saw the long, twisted, evil-looking syringe, gripped tightly in one clawed-hand… I couldn’t believe that she’d… that she was dying even as I watched it happen, powerless to stop it. I ran around the apartment. Tried throwing some water in her face. No effect.
What had I done?
In a panic, I switched my tablet to communicator mode and, hands trembling, started calling directory services. My voice cracked while I begged to be put into contact with the only people that could help her.
Nixa was bucking on the couch, making grinding noises as she shuddered feverishly.
Then they answered, and I was screaming into the tablet, holding Nixa’s impossibly hot hand and wishing it was me who was dying.
Day 207, what I deserved:
They came quickly.
When the door opened I was met by a trio of angry, clicking, Cht’xst’tk-ians. I’d never seen another of Nixa’s species. They were smaller and darker than she was, more angular, their every movement menacing. Unspeakable horrors from my nightmares. But I was also desperately glad to see them. Nixa had stopped twitching a few minutes ago and I was beginning to lose hope.
The Cht’xst’tk-ians were fast, lethal-looking, and intimidating. One of them shoved me roughly out of the way, storming past into my living room.
Their apparent leader was ordering the others to grab Nixa. I tried to protest as they picked her up like a sack of potatoes, but the small, darker one was in front of me before I could blink through my tears, and then it hit me, its claws digging into my skin. I flew into the wall and crumpled against the floor.
‘You’ve done enough ( soft-bag ),’ it said. ‘You know that Nixa’chrt’tk’chtil’tzrk was once destined for greatness? But to attempt this? In this filthy hovel? It’s an insult to our kind!’
‘… it wasn’t my fault… you can take it out on me, but promise me you’ll help her!’
( disgusted ) ‘Nobody can help her now Human! What sick ideas you’ve put into her head. And now look what its led to! Dying would be a blessing for her now. Just hope that it happens quickly.’
I couldn’t accept that. ‘You did this to her! You did!’ I screamed while trying, ineffectually, to get to my feet. But the thing was so strong that it effortlessly pushed me back to the ground.
‘Stay down in the dirt where you belong,’ it said. And then they carried her out into the hallway.
I lay on the ground for hours, cold and sore, cursing myself for having the nerve to feel uncomfortable.
I just wanted to punish myself for what I’d done.
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