Day 208, not knowing is the hardest part:
I had no idea if Nixa was dead or alive; her people had been ignoring my flurry of messages and calls, until, finally, a reply: ( Nixa is dead to you human. If you cause us any more trouble you’ll regret it. Let sleeping Blorfs lie and we won’t have to deal with you too. )
I put on my clothes and stormed out my door intending to go straight to their district and give them a piece of my mind. But who was I kidding?
Day 208, vengeance will be mine:
Gritting my teeth, I made my way across the dark city. It was early and the artificial sun had not yet “risen”, but P’shush’t would likely be at the bar since it never seemed to go anywhere else. And that’s where I found it, sleeping in the booth at the back of the room. I slammed my hands down on the table and it snapped awake with a shudder of its tentacles.
‘You ( expletive )!’ I screamed. ‘This is all your fault!’
( groggy, surprised ) ‘What is it now Human? Do you have something for me?’
I smacked the table again, ‘You have no idea what I’d like to give you! You… ( expletive cursing, expletive ) slug! You can take your ( expletive ) and shove it up your ( curse )!’
That got its tentacles wriggling alright. ‘Watch your mouth Human, you’re not ( out of the woods ) yet. Remember that you have a job to do.’
I told P’shush’t what it could do with its job. ‘Nixa’s probably dead because of you!’
( irritated ) ‘Is that what this is about? Forget the ( insect ), she’s gone.’
I thought my heart had stopped. ‘What do you mean… gone?’
P’shush’t let out a low belch. ‘Oh yes. We had reports come in last night that the Cht’xst’tk-ians lit a massive funeral pyre. A shame that. You know that they had high hopes for your friend ( once upon a time )? No, you probably don’t, but they thought she’d be the one to save them. We find it amusing that the lesser-species think that they have any hope of taking control of our city. Well, you see how that ends. Though I imagine we’ll be having some trouble from those ( insects ) in the coming days. You’ve ( screwed that up ) as well, haven’t you? I hope that you have some information for me for all the trouble you’ve caused.’
‘How ( cursing ) dare you! She’s dead?’ I cried out, tears streaming down my face.
‘If you don’t want to end up the same way, you’ll produce some useful news for me. Soon.’
‘( Curse ) your news P’shush’t. I’m done!’
It grabbed me roughly with one of its tentacles. ( Slixt burp-laugh ) ‘No Human, you’re done when I say you’re done. You better find a way to get over it, and fast… if you think what happened to your friend is the worst fate that can befall you, let me assure you, it isn’t. Not by far. You’re just a Triblak’s length away from finding that out for yourself though.’
There was so much that I wanted to say, or do, but it was no use. If I was going to make any sort of impact on the Slixt then I’d need to make a bigger statement, and I even had an inkling where to start.
Day 208, an hour later:
The Slixt could be following me, or they might’ve secreted another eye on me somewhere, so as I wandered through the early-morning market I began taking off all my clothes. A minute later, I was naked, holding nothing but my tablet, a handful of Fleeps leftover from my last paycheck, and the last of the resource credit chits that Jerkface had given me.
The person behind the counter at the Cycling Center paid my nakedness no mind. Shrugging, I pushed the Fleeps and the credit chits toward the alien and told it what I wanted. Then I sent a message to Jerkface and powered down my tablet.
A short time later I was making my way through the city dressed in soft, brown, hooded-rags, of the kind that were near universally popular with scavengers of most species. It might not have been the best disguise, but the city was full of nameless people who made a meagre living off recycling and I’d be able to blend in.
Despite the time pressure, I made sure to poke at every pile of rubbish and bin on my route through the dark alleyways and twisting streets. Whether it fooled anyone, I couldn’t say, but it least it felt like I was finally doing something instead of waiting for things to happen to me.
Day 208, revisiting the past:
Jerkface and Wheezy were already in the Downtube vestibule, waiting, and did a double-take when they realized that it was me. Neither of them said a word as I led them quietly but directly to Blue Tube 77. As expected, it granted us access and we were whiffed down into the depths of the ship without setting off any visible alarms.
It’s hard to explain why I was so sure that the Slixt wouldn’t be waiting for us down there. Maybe it was because of their laziness, but I had gotten the distinct impression that the slugs didn’t overly care if people found this place. Either way, there were no alarms, or armored Slixt, or anything else, except for the lonely sounds of the abandoned Sub-Level. Almost certain that the coast was clear, I handed Jerkface and Wheezy the pair of proper flashlights that I’d had replicated that morning.
Wheezy let out what might have been interpreted as a low whistle, while Jerkface played its own light over the walls. ‘What is this place?’ they asked me.
By way of answer, I led them through the iris-door and down the tunnel until we arrived at the place with the spiky writing painted on the wall.
( – record redacted: content removed by order of Inquisitor Slub’bump : ref #869-NOK-722-Z )
No! Enough of that! You wanted the truth, so let me tell it my own way. What does it even matter anymore! You have what you want now, so just let me continue for ( curse’s ) sake.
( – record authorized: content approved by order of Inquisitor Slub’bump : ref #869-AOK-723-Z )
Stenciled on the side of the tunnel were the following words:
Maintenance Sub-level: Six
No unauthorized entry permitted – violation of overseer protocol is punishable by death.
By order of Groazl High-Command.
For a while there was no sound but the distant dripping of old pipes. Jerkface played his beam over the words again, and then again. ‘But what does it mean, do you think?’ he asked.
‘It means that the Slixt weren’t the ones who built this ship,’ I said.
Wheezy looked confused, ‘So? The Slixt are rich, maybe they bought it.’
I shook my head to indicate my disbelief. ‘There’s another possibility: the Slixt stole it.’
Jerkface looked over his shoulder. ‘Why didn’t you tell us this before?’
‘What difference would it have made? I didn’t think it would change anything, and besides, I’d already caused enough trouble for everyone.’
Wheezy shuffled over. ‘What else haven’t you told us?’
Shrugging, I said, ‘Nothing. I don’t know anything else. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have theories of my own. P’shush’t didn’t seem concerned that we discovered this place, and probably wouldn’t care if we told anyone about the writing on the wall.’ (That was originally written before all the redactions – the Slixt care a lot about what people might find down here.)
‘When Nixa, J&J, and I were down here the last time, the Slixt mentioned a “Groazl”. Judging by the reference to the Groazl High Command, and everything else, it must mean that this ship was originally theirs. And it means that one of them must still be alive, somewhere on this level. We need to find out if that’s true or just another lie.’
(I was reluctant to recount the part where the Slixt guards said the Groazl was supposed to eat us.)
‘After what happened to Nixa, there was no point in risking another visit. Now, things have changed, and we need answers… if there’s a way to avoid war, then that’s what we need to discover. It’s what Nixa would have wanted, and this Groazl-thing might have the answers.’
My friends expressions were dubious at best.
‘The Slixt think of this as a dead end because it kind of is. But P’shush’t might have been playing it cool too… the last thing the Slixt need is rumors of escape-pods floating around, even if they’re disabled. But they probably don’t mind if people think there’s nothing down here but armored slug-patrols and monsters – most people wouldn’t be willing to take the risk.’
‘So they could come storming down here at any minute and take us away?’ asked Wheezy a little ( fearfully ).
‘I don’t think so.’
Jerkface asked, ‘And why’s that?’
‘Because they would have done it already. For all of their power and technology, the Slixt are lazy – everyone knows that – besides, they let me live to tell the tale. And let’s face it, I’m not exactly a threat to them, right? They must think that we can’t do them much harm by coming down here.’
Jerkface was skeptical, ‘And you think that we can?’
We walked down the dark passageway that circled the ship, looking out the windows (because who could help themselves). I didn’t know where we were going, but figured if we continued to work our way toward the center of the ship, we’d find what we were looking for. So we started taking turns down side passages. There were wide ones, narrow ones, mostly spiky ones, and smelly ones, but all of them were empty. After half an hour I was beginning to lose what little hope I’d managed to conjure up.
It was time for a new tactic. I started yelling, ‘Groazl!’
Jerkface asked me if I was mad and Wheezy suggested that we head back before anything bad happened, but I coaxed them onward, continuing to call out ‘Groazl!’ into the dark.
Another hour passed and I was ready to give up, reluctantly agreeing with my comrades that the only thing down here was pipes, empty passages, and maybe ghosts.
(It was mostly me that thought there might be ghosts, but Wheezy was willing to believe as well.)
Day 208, heading back to the city:
We were good and lost, but I thought that we were heading in the right direction. If we could find a Downtube (it wouldn’t matter which, hopefully) it would get us to the surface again. But we didn’t find one.
It was then that a wet, slapping, scrabbling-thump echoed down the tunnel. Wheezy shrieked in terror. Jerkface shone his flashlight back the way we came, and the sound stopped suddenly. We didn’t need to take a vote to determine if anyone was still in the mood to meet a Groazl, so we doubled our pace. We ended up at another door, opened it, and found ourselves back in the window-passage that circled the lower part of the ship.
The slapping-pounding noise came again, closer this time, and we started running for our lives. Then I remembered that this was why we came down here in the first place. So I stopped and turned, holding my arms out to the sides, and called out, ‘Groazl!’
Jerkface and Wheezy skidded around some pipes, urging me to keep running as the sound of heavy limbs grew louder and louder. Then it was too late to run. The Groazl had found us. It was big, and fast – running was no longer a realistic option. Wheezy keened from somewhere behind me while Jerkface screamed, the beams from their flashlights jittering crazily across the tunnel walls, lighting up the creature that we had come to find (maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all).
I’d been so wrong about so many things that I hoped that this time, I’d get lucky.
Day 208, it’s your move:
The Groazl was a monstrous and terrifying species (even by my current standards). I’d seen a lot, but occasionally an alien still managed to surprise me. And this was one of those exceptions. I wondered how the thing had evolved and what its native planet looked like, because it didn’t run on the ground like regular people did, nor did it float through the air gracefully like a Maymorf or a Vizmook.
No, this was something else entirely: a creature that would have eaten us already, if it had wanted to. The Groazl’s limbs were long and segmented like a spider’s, skinny and shiny, spotted green on a brown canvas like a frog’s, and rippling with stringy muscles. At the end of each of its eight or more legs (it was hard to tell) were three fingers that slap-thunked against the prongs set into the walls. It used those to travel like some kind of demonic-frog-monkey-spider-monster-from-hell at terrifying speed. For the moment, the Groazl seemed content to hang from the prongs at odd angles, hovering over the scene like the bad news it was. Its head had six eyes, two yellow and four black, along with a wide frog-like mouth bearing rows of sharp teeth. The only good thing I could say about the creature at that moment was that it hadn’t killed us yet.
It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that it might not have a translator-bolt embedded in its head like we did. If that was the case, this was going to a short and painful conversation.
‘Hi,’ I said. ‘We’ve come to talk to you. We were, uh… hoping that you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions?’
I nearly jumped out of my pants as it leapt down onto ground in front of me and gave me a good sniff.
Day 208, ancient ones:
We followed the Groazl though the bowels of the ship since there was no reasonable or safe way to refuse it. Our journey took some time. The creature constantly had to stop to wait for us to catch up, circle back, and then gurgle and growl as we timidly followed after it, too afraid to run away. After a time, it became apparent that the Groazl was bringing to its lair, which turned out to be a cleverly concealed storage room far away from where it had found us. Hiding its home was an ingenious door that couldn’t be seen until it opened at the Groazl’s command.
The space beyond was huge by human standards. Full of all sorts of junk and alien equipment. To my eye it looked more like a rickety Mookmook camp than the home of a highly advanced species.
It herded us toward an electric camp-fire-thingy in the middle of the room, which crackled with a warm violet light. A number of oddly sized cylinders hung over the fire. All of them filled with copious quantities of some unidentified “meat” – like an alien barbecue from hell. Bits of ( unknown ) corpses hung down stinking from lines above us, and I had seriously started to reconsider my decision to bring us all here. By the looks on my friends’ faces, they shared that thought.
The alien made itself comfortable by the fire, offering us some of the mystery flesh, which we politely declined.
( shrugging ) its long limbs, the Groazl proceeded to tear at the over-cooked meat.
I was trying to think of a way to start the conversation that I’d been preparing for ever since getting the bright idea to bring us down here. My feeling was that this was, in every sense of the word, a “diplomatic” mission. Not exactly my strong suit. But this creature’s cooperation and assistance was vital to my plan. With a sigh, I grabbed a hunk of meat off of the ground at Groazl’s feet and took a bite. It was awful, but I wanted the alien to trust me.
Nixa would have known what to do in this situation. Her absence was a hot knife piercing my heart, but I couldn’t afford to break down again. The realization that I’d become wholly reliant on her friendship and support echoed in the cold gap she had left in my life.
My only remaining hope was that we’d be able to gain some advantage from the Groazl that could help prevent the coming catastrophe. And possibly a way to avenge Nixa in the process. But I was never the one who was good with words, and the words I’d chosen to use with Nixa at the end were cruel. Unnecessary. Unfair. Un-friendlike.
I was haunted by the knowledge that I could never take them back. There was no way to return to the life we’d left behind, (not for me, and not for Nixa). She said that we’d been happy with the way that things were, and she was right, though she’d never get the satisfaction of knowing that. Not anymore. My current existence was based on lies and cowardice, and I was glad that Jerkface and Wheezy were with me, though I doubted they would ever follow me anywhere ever again.
Of all the realizations that a person can come to, it’s hard to face the fact that when the going gets rough, you’re the one who gets going instead of standing your ground and fighting for what’s right. That you’re not the one who’s going to right injustice. Not when you actually have to put your life on the line. Not when the cost of doing so is nothing short of everything… but this was my only chance at redemption, and it was up to me to get the answers I’d come for.
‘You’re the Groazl, right?’ I asked it.
( gurgling ) ‘Not the Groazl; I am the only Groazl here. The last of my people on this ship, and perhaps the last of my kind anywhere. And you, you’re Human.’
Groazl made a croaking-hissing noise. ‘A weak species. Your only potential is in your genes. An almost useless gift I ( imagine ), but perhaps not.’
‘Uh, yeah, compared to you, I guess we’re not so impressive. But maybe you’ll humor us anyway?’
Jerkface shifted uncomfortably but said nothing. Wheezy was just trying to sit as quietly as they could.
Figuring I might as well get on with it, I said, ‘The Slixt stole this ship from you, didn’t they? Er, maybe not you personally, but from your people. The Groazl?’
Groazl closed its eyes and made a humming noise. ‘They didn’t steal it human, they won it. My people underestimated the Slixt, and the ( worms ) took their ( war-prize )… it is theirs by right.’
‘What do you mean?’
Jerkface muttered, ‘We don’t have time for a history lesson.’
I looked over at my friends and asked, ‘Don’t you want to know?’ But could see that they thought this was a bad idea. I addressed Groazl again, ‘How did they take it from you? And why aren’t you angrier about it? I’d be plenty pissed off if I were in your, uh, shoes.’
It snatched up another piece of meat and noisily crunched at it. ‘The Groazl lived through conquest. Our civilization spanned many worlds, each one adding to the Groazl hoard as ( war-prize ). Only the strong have the right to survive. The Slixt were strong enough to take all this away from us – so they earned it. If my people could fall from power as they had, then this fall was inevitable, sooner or later.’
‘But how did they do it? The Slixt could be smart enough, maybe, but they just don’t have the… the… uh, initiative for something like this. Do they?’
( grumbling ) ‘Quite right Human. The Slixt is just an overgrown parasite. One which strove far above its potential and evolved into an insidious species. They would have had to, in order to rise to the top of the food chain on their own home-world. And cleverer still to reach across the cosmos and take new worlds for themselves. In some ways, they are not so different from the Groazl, but the ( worms ) had many disadvantages. You are correct to describe them as ( lazy ), but the species is also tenacious when required to be. Their ability to survive and spread their seed across many lightyears is no small achievement. However, even though the Slixt possessed resilience and intelligence, they lacked technological sophistication.
‘When the Groazl first encountered the Slixt, it was mere ( child’s play ) for us to ravage their worlds and enslave their kind. We had a great many vassals in those days. Strong ones. Only the toughest were worthy of serving us. And we wanted them to be intelligent, and ( cunning ) too. Such creatures made for better and more useful tools. So the Slixt made for an excellent choice. And besides, there was nothing that they would be able to do to oppose us. Or so we thought.’
‘But you were wrong.’
( barking-croak ) ‘Humans! It’s hard to find another species that’s so arrogant in its own ignorance… we were wrong indeed. The Slixt had a secret power that we didn’t know about. They had devious minds considering they had evolved from semi-segmented ( worms ). Creatures that were naturally lethargic, unless motivated in the proper way. And I can promise you Human, that nobody in the ( galaxy ) knew how to motivate a ( captive ) like the Groazl. Don’t look at me like that again… it was our right. The Slixt were once our ( war-prize ) and our ( gods ) demanded that we took what we had earned, and then… perhaps I should start at the beginning…’
We waited patiently while the Groazl crunched on some bones before continuing.
‘The Slixt were primitive yes, but you must remember that the species is also ambitious – very much like the Groazl. They too had taken many worlds under the ( Law of Might ). Worlds that they brought under their yoke by means of the strength of ( fist ) and cudgel. Meanwhile, my own people had grown comfortable with their position. Conquering the galaxy in those days was easy. We were so far advanced over the other species that we became guilty of ( cutting corners ) and ( taking shortcuts )…
‘We failed to notice how the Slixt actually enslaved the worlds that they conquered, and thus never realized that the hammer and the tooth weren’t the only way they won their ( war-prizes ). As far as we knew, they used the same tools as we did, in the same way that we did. So why should we be wary of them? But they had a secret weapon; a way to control other species, and ultimately not even the Groazl were immune to their treachery.
‘Our ( science caste ) neglected to appreciate that the Slixt species secretes certain ( pheromones ) from their skin – do you know that word? ( Pheromone )? It’s like a gas that emanates from their pores. An insidiously noxious mixture that can influence and alter the mind. In our pride, we were blind to this power. And that’s how they won, Human. We never saw it coming. The Slixt kept their secret well. Once they had realized that they had “lost” they quickly became pliant and co-operative. At least until there were Slixt on every Groazl world, ship, or outpost. Only after they had infiltrated every crevice and crack did they choose to act.
‘When it was over, they divided up the Groazl worlds, making of our ships and our weapons their ( war-prizes ). My people became their property. But the Slixt weren’t interested in forcing us to bow down before them. We were too dangerous, and their resentment toward us ran too deep, so they killed us all. Or almost all of us, as proof of my living demonstrates to you now. My people are broken, and if there any others left, I wish them a good ( death ).’
Groazl settled back into the shadows, pulling its long limbs against its spindly body.
I asked, ‘Why didn’t they kill you?’
‘They would have, but I hid, for a long time, and all the while I honored the ( war pact ). I was bound to their service since they were the victors. So I’ve kept the ship running as best as I could all these years. When the Slixt realized their mistake, they also discovered what I’d been doing, and they have no interest in ship maintenance. Not if I was doing it for them – so they let me be. And I had other uses too. I was living off any creature foolish enough to make their way down here, so it was doubly convenient for them to leave me to my lonely task.’
‘So you’re going to eat us?’ I asked, sensing that my friends wished that I had not asked that particular question.
‘I think not… I’ve become “self-sufficient” you might say. And now in my old age, I’m content to eat the Laryth that breed in the sewage pools. I’ve developed a taste for them.’
I shuddered, (er, that must have been what I’d eaten earlier, yuck).
Groazl found my reaction ( amusing ). ‘And so I try to avoid anyone that comes down here… they’re the Slixt’s problem now, and as long as I keep things running, I’m left to my own peace – or what’s left of it.’
‘Why would you fix the ship for the Slixt? Why not just let them do it, or sabotage it even? And if you can fix things, couldn’t you fix the escape pods and get away?’
( rumbling ) ‘‘Where would I go? My people are gone. In what little time remains to me I intend to honor the ( old ways ). The ( war pact ) is inviolate. I don’t expect a lesser being like yourself to understand such matters. It is enough that I am able to provide the service to which I am bound.’
I thought about what Groazl had said, and replied, ‘You know what? It’s hard to feel sorry for you. But I doubt you care what I think.’
Groazl’s barking-croak signaled agreement with my sentiment.
Ok then. ‘Well, as long as you’re feeling talkative, can I ask how many people know about this place? I mean, people that know about you…’
The creature considered my question. ‘A few over the years, but whatever knowledge they found here couldn’t save them from their fate. How could it? And what good did it do them? The Humans usually end up dead. You will as well – if you’re lucky. The Slixt learned from the Groazl well… they’ll use you to root out the corruption in their ( – deleted – ), and then they will give the rest of Humanity what they gave the Groazl.’
Was this thing telling me that we were in some kind of a… ( – deleted – )? That the Slixt were keeping us all here as some kind of… of… of, ( – deleted – )? But that was the least of my problems. I sprung to my feet. ‘You’re telling me that they’ll what, destroy the Earth? Why?’
The expression it gave me was almost ( pitying ). ‘The Groazl would do as much, so yes, I think that the Slixt will honor history. They are good students. In any case, this ship is on a course for your home-world.’
I wanted to scream and curse, but getting mad at this evil-being wouldn’t help; it could only result in getting myself added to the meat-pile. ‘I have to stop them!’
Jerkface and Wheezy tried to comfort me. Groazl let out a low warbling which could have meant anything, but I interpreted it as doubt.
Maybe it would help me anyway?
I asked it, ‘The other Humans came here, didn’t they? After that day when all the alarms went off, two of them came back later, and you told them all of this?’
It shook its limbs eerily, and said, ‘Yes.’
‘What did you tell them? Were you able to help?’
‘No help for the Humans, only hope… You must think that I am growing sentimental in my old age? Perhaps yes, and it could be that I wanted to see if they had it in them. But I grow tired of intrigue. It no longer assuages my boredom. The Groazl were among the mightiest species to ever plunder the ( galaxy ). I don’t see how the Humans can trick the Slixt with their own strategy, and you don’t have enough Humans in the universe to overpower the Slixt. The technology that I gifted your people suited my own ( amusements ), nothing more.’
‘It doesn’t matter now Human – merely a medical device, used to detect and extract chemical substances from ( animals ).’
‘Er, to do what with exactly?’
( warbling ) ‘Human ( pheromones ), in the right quantities, and when used correctly, will make you invisible to the Slixt. For a short time.’
‘But they can see me; that doesn’t make sense.’
‘Yes, because you are impure. But if you extract enough of your species’ chemicals over a long enough period, these can be used the same way the Slixt used them against us. Though only briefly, because of how unstable they are in your genome.’
This news was confusing. ‘How does that help Jane and John?’
‘The other Humans are intent on applying those chemicals to their ( warrior caste ) just before they strike. It is a ( not terrible ) strategy, even though it will fail. But don’t get too excited Human, you’re not the only species on this ship immune to the Slixt.’
I felt all color drain from my face.
( croaking ) ‘Surprised? The Slixt are unwilling to use their own ( pheromones ) to control the population. It is better for them if they don’t have to. After all, they have our technology, and it is always preferable to use the ( old fashioned ) methods of ( whip and stick ), it’s more ( life-like ) that way. The Slixt want their ( – deleted – ) to act naturally. I too approve of this philosophy.’
Jerkface and Wheezy were stunned by the Groazl’s revelations. We spent another hour questioning it, arguing between ourselves at times, trying to decide what we should do next. I implored the Groazl to help us, but it refused. By that point, the creature had grown tired of our frenetic presence and made it clear that we’d overstayed our welcome.
As we were getting ready to go, Groazl said, ‘Time is running short Human, and I will soon join you in the ( dead stars ). Leave the Slixt to more advanced species to deal with, for they will endure beyond the span of your life. And indeed, that of your blue-green world.’
But I wanted a different outcome, and tried one last time, ‘You have to fight with us! You said your species was powerful – surely you could help us.’
( croaking, irritated ) ‘Even when my species was strong and vibrant, I was just a ( maintenance worker ), not a ( warrior caste )… I can fix many things, but not the Slixt.’
Nothing we said or did moved the Groazl to consider aiding us, but I asked it for one more thing, a small favor that I had no right to ask for. ‘Will you do it?’ I pleaded.
Groazl left us with directions back to the Downtube and the words, ‘Defy the ( war-pact )? For you? An intriguing notion, though one without merit. If it suits me, I may do as you ask, but no more… I’ll think about it.’
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