Day 210, remembrance:
After the events in Sub-Level Six, I decided that the best course of action would be to go into hiding. A lot of people were looking for me – P’shush’t would be expecting news and J&J were just plain dangerous.
That’s how I ended up sleeping on Jerkface’s couch, much to the dismay of his wife, Merderk (I didn’t even know that he was married).
To make things even weirder, Merderk had a tendency to call him by his real name, Grrolp. He’d always been “Jerkface” to me, and even though we were friends now, I still felt like my version was better suited (that said, I found myself unable to call him Jerkface in his own home).
Merderk was a pleasant enough person when she wasn’t preoccupied with resenting the fact that I had intruded on their lives and messed up their living room. Jerkface, for his part, was going to work every day (and still stealing stuff with Wheezy) so I was left to my own devices for long periods of time. Conscious of my effect on Merderk, I tried spending as much time out of the house as possible. But there wasn’t anywhere to go because I couldn’t afford to let anyone see me. The alley-way behind their tenement became my second home (or was that third home?).
Ultimately, I was drawn to wander idly through the streets, and thus found my way to a place I’d rather not have re-visited. The park.
Pulling one of my few remaining Fleeps (that I got from Jerkface) from my pocket, I bought some flowery-things from a vendor on the outskirts and made my way to the spot where Nixa and I used to chat for hours about everything and nothing on quiet afternoons.
Sitting there for a while, I looked at the forested section of the city, lost in doubt and self-pity before laying the flowers on the chair-nub that she used to sit on, and would never sit on again.
I missed her so much, and wasn’t sure how much longer I could do this.
Day 210, long live the slugs:
I couldn’t bring myself to go back to Jerkface’s place after that and, to be fair, Merderk deserved a little alone time. So I kept on wandering, through nameless streets and unfamiliar districts, while trying to untangle my emotions from my desires, unable to find myself no matter which way I turned.
Somewhere in the banking district I came upon a large circular park, which wrapped around either side of the wide central avenue that pierced through the city like a spear, starting at the outer hull and ending at the citadel-spike. Traveling along that road, the districts became increasingly wealthy and prestigious.
Nixa’s people lived somewhere between my present location and the Slixt stronghold. I wanted to make my way there and offer my condolences, but knew that I wouldn’t be welcomed, and might not make it back out alive if I tried.
Sighing, I sank down heavily onto a nearby bench, watching a number of Yiskeen directing Wunzun construction workers in the center of the park, where the road swelled around a raised platform. They were erecting a giant statue of a Slixt. It was holding some kind of scepter. I crept over, but not too close, lest someone recognize me. After a few minutes my curiosity got the better of me and I moved a bit closer. The statue was as tall as my old apartment building and almost as wide, on account of the carved Slixt’s immense girth. Its segments seemed close to bursting, and its expression made P’shush’t look humble by comparison. I read the inscription at the bottom:
Sp’loort The Third
I had no idea who that was. It might have been the Slixt captain, or owner of the ship, or some kind of ruler… I’d never really bothered to learn much about the Slixt hierarchy and wasn’t about to start caring just then. All I knew was that every district was governed by a Controller, and every canton by an Overseer, and apparently there was a Mayor, or something, but I’d never seen it, and finding out who that was, or what they actually did, was at the very bottom of my list of priorities (politics had never been my strong suit).
Lots of people had gathered to see what was going on, but when a Slixt “togetherness patrol” slimed into the area and started scrutinizing the onlookers, I decided that it was time to go.
On my way out I noticed a couple of Nerfnerks nailing up some posters. It was then that everything became obvious.
I’d heard about the holiday before. Most likely from Nixa, but I couldn’t be sure. All the memories I kept of her were of happier times and a Slixt-themed party wouldn’t have made the cut. She would have most likely told me, possibly during a lecture about my civic-duties. I would have cracked a joke, and maybe she’d have laughed, and then things would have been easier between us, for a time, before I ruined things like I always did and started the cycle all over again.
Nixa… she’d been my rock, and I hers; only, she was the river’s shore, while I was the stone that pulled her down below the swirling currents.
I hated myself. The promise of coming celebrations in honor of the slugs disgusted me, but the significance of the holiday was hard to ignore. Red and gold banners hanging from the rooftops depicted crowds of aliens cheering a large procession of armored Slixt surrounded by people wearing colorful costumes. Like a cross between a carnival and the communist May Day parades back on Earth.
J&J’s plan started to make sense. The Slixteenth of Blorbember marked the annual Slixt’mas Day Parade… so that’s when the rebels would strike.
And it was coming up fast.
Day 210, back at the pub, after Jerkface and Wheezy got off work:
My ex-coworkers agreed with me that the rebels would most likely time their attack to the day of the parade. It was the one day of the year when all the tunnels and main roads leading to the center of the ship would be open to pedestrians. The fact that people typically dressed up in fancy costumes meant that it would be easy enough for the insurgents to get close enough to the Slixt stronghold unrecognized (where they could make their final stand).
But I still believed that we had a chance to stop the madness, and asked Jerkface and Wheezy if they would help me. Jerkface said that he was due some time off work – Wheezy too – and it wouldn’t be suspicious to take vacation at Slixt’mas time. In fact, they’d already been planning to do so.
I knew that Merderk wouldn’t like Jerkface hanging out with me (of all people) during his time off, but it couldn’t be helped (plus, it wasn’t my place to tell her what we were up to on Jerkface’s behalf).
As we sunk another round of fizzy drinks, I outlined the plan. They agreed with some of it. Other parts, they wanted nothing to do with, but I was happy for any help I could get.
Day 211, rebel base:
The next day I left Jerkface’s apartment early and headed back to the Silk Road, through the alleyway, past the hologram-wall, down the stairs, and into Jane and John’s rebel base only to find it totally empty. The illegal Cycler machine was gone, as were all of the crates, and weapons, and all the rest. I walked through the echoing space looking into every cupboard and locker, but they’d done a fine job getting everything out of there without getting caught.
Aside from a half-dozen rubber Slixt costumes and a few placards attached to wooden handles, there was only the odd bit of junk or empty box to indicate that anything had ever been down there. The multicolor signs littering the floor were covered in slogans like “I ♡ Slixt” or “Goo Day To You” and other sappy sentiments.
Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps (as opposed to the slimy-scrunching-squish of approaching slugs) I spun around in time to see John framed in the doorway. His shoulders were squared and his expression sour .
‘Here to rat us out?’ he asked, walking toward me.
I edged backward. ‘And why would I do that?’
John stopped advancing and stood about a half-Triblak’s width away from where I was. He shrugged. ‘Why do you do anything? Do you even know?’
I figured it was a rhetorical question. And if not, I wasn’t equipped to answer it anyway. So I asked him, ‘Have you been waiting here the whole time? Just in case I’d show up?’
‘No, we’ve been following you.’
John moved closer and I took another step back. ‘Yeah, we never trusted you – not from the beginning, and not now. Your priorities are all mixed up. We can see that, but it’s not too late for you to do the right thing. We’re going to win this war, and when we do everyone who helped us will be rewarded… you don’t want to know what will happen to the people who were working against us.
‘So we want you to think about that, while you still can. And whatever ends up happening, you have to understand that it’s just that way that revolutions go. Once the old-guard has been “replaced” it’s natural to make sure that the opposition never gets the chance to turn the tables. So… give it some thought. In the meantime, I want you to tell me something.’
I wanted to be shocked at what John was saying, or at least surprised. I asked him, ‘What do you want to know?’
He took another step and I backed up into the wall behind me. He said, ‘Did you tell the Slixt what we’re up to?’
‘Of course not.’
‘But you’re working for them.’
I could feel the wall brushing against my clothes. There was nowhere left to go, save for a mad dash toward the exit. But John was a military guy and I was just a regular person. I wasn’t even that fit to be honest. If he was planning on doing something to me, there’d be no practical way to stop him. So I asked, ‘What makes you think that you aren’t working for the Slixt? Like, maybe the whole thing is just a giant set-up designed to discover potential traitors and deal with them? Have you ever thought who these mysterious benefactors of yours might be? … When I was here the last time, you had every gun in the world here, but no rebels. How do you know, for sure, that there’s an army out there just waiting for a couple of rubes from the planet Earth to jump over the wire and lead the charge? Isn’t it just too complicated to be real?’
John was very close now. I could reach out and touch him if I wanted to, but I no longer thought about things like that.
He said, ‘Do you listen to yourself when you talk? Traitors? Against the Slixt? I was right from the very first moment we met you. I said to Jane that you’d gone native… she disagreed with me, but I get it right just as often as she does… she might be my superior, but she’s got a soft spot for you for some reason.
‘It wasn’t all acting… she actually liked you. For all I know, she still does. But Jane’s a professional, and she won’t let something like that get in the way of what needs to be done… We agreed that it would be best if I was the one to come and talk to you. And as for the Resistance? Oh, they’re out there, and there’s more of them than you’d think. The day is coming, and then you’ll see what we’re made of… and what you aren’t.’
Everything he said confirmed my worst fears – and hopes. Jane liked me, which was kind of great, but aside from her being Human, I struggled to come up with any other redeeming qualities.
I resented John’s blatantly speciesist remarks (it was something that I’d been working on within myself, albeit with limited success). But J&J were taking it too far. Didn’t they realize that they were relying on these aliens to fight and die for “their” cause? I guessed that they did, but didn’t care as long as they got what they wanted. And that was assuming there really was an army in hiding just waiting to strike.
I snapped at him, ‘Stop avoiding my question. How can you be sure there’s a Resistance out there? Have you actually met them? Or just your “sponsors”, whoever they are – and why aren’t they the ones taking all the risks?’
John let out a deep breath. ‘It’s just basic operational security, the military does it all the time… ( hell ), even terrorists back on Earth use the same tactics.’
‘So now you’re a terrorist?’
‘Poor choice of words, I should have said freedom-fighter.’
‘What’s the difference?’
John clenched his fists, getting even closer. ‘When you hatched that escape plan, I thought that you’d finally broken out of whatever spell these aliens had put you under, but deep down I always knew you were weak. That you’d chicken out when it came down to it.’
I flinched away from him, but had nowhere to go. ‘And now you’re here to make sure I don’t talk? Is that it? Are you going to kill me now?’
John backed off a few steps and slid his hands into his pockets. ‘No, nothing like that… if we wanted you dead then you would be, wouldn’t you? Listen, we might be around the same age, but you’re immature. I’m talking about the real world now, and I don’t understand why you can’t see that. All of this is just an illusion, a cage that the Slixt created for their own amusement, for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter why they do what they do. The Slixt’s ultimate goals are irrelevant. They’re pure evil. A six-year-old could see that! And yet even with all of that staring you in the face, you’re still choosing to ignore the facts. It’s not like you don’t know any better, it’s that you don’t want to.’
When I said nothing, he continued. ‘Life is unfair right? Nothing you can do about it? You hate it here? Prove it – every time you got a chance to change your life, you ended up telling yourself that things couldn’t be changed, and so you did nothing. It’s always easier to have an opinion than to pick yourself up and fight against your captors. No, you’d rather feel sorry for yourself, and I just don’t get how people like you can exist.’
I’ll admit my eyes might have become a bit watery at that point.
John said, ‘Jane and I offered to open the door for you, but instead you just scurried into a dark corner and hoped that the ( cursing ) Slixt would come and close the cage again… I can’t believe how wrong Jane was about you. We hoped you’d see the light, eventually.’
‘Maybe you’re wrong about everything!’
He kicked a piece of rubbish across the floor. ‘Look, all I know is if you haven’t already picked a side, you’ll have to.’
‘And what if I can’t?’
He stared at his shoes, possibly weighing up which answer to give me. Then he looked into my eyes. ‘No matter what you do, including nothing, you’ll be picking a side. Don’t kid yourself kid… just try to pick the right one… ( curse ), this is pointless, I gotta get going.’
Despite everything, I didn’t want him to go. Not without resolving things. There might never be another chance. ‘Wait!’ I said, ‘There’s so much more that I wanted to say to you… before it’s too late.’
John looked angry and disgusted. ‘We needed you on our side, one way or another, so we did our best to ensure that was what happened… you get that right?’
I guessed that I did, but it still hurt.
He shook his head like he was trying to get the conversation out of his mind, saying only, ‘Just promise me that you’ll make the right decision.’
As he was going up the stairs I yelled after him, ‘You can be sure that I will!’
Day 213, confused:
Would it be better for everyone if this world burned or was saved? Maybe it wasn’t possible to have one without the other. With Nixa gone, it didn’t matter what happened as long as the Slixt got what they deserved. They’d earned their day of reckoning, but I wasn’t sure if any of us were strong enough to actually bring it to them.
When I was younger, I’d watch a super-hero movie, or a cartoon, or something, and at the end of it I’d imagine myself having incredible powers. Superman’s invincibility could come in handy, or maybe some godly-armor, or maybe a dragon. The possibilities were as endless as they were unlikely, but that didn’t stop me from wanting them. Real heroes had confidence, and could move mountains, and maybe even turn back time (if only I could turn back the clock).
John might’ve been right; I had been acting like a kid, hoping for salvation to be given to me when ultimately it was my responsibility to find it.
But I’m no kind of hero.
Day 215, decision time:
It was Slixt’mas Eve, and even if I couldn’t prevent what was going to happen the next day, there were moves left to be played. I’d worked it all out with Jerkface and Wheezy the previous night, and my plan, which guaranteed nothing, would kill a few birds with one stone. It was pretty simple really, and perhaps naïve, but it was only in the movies that the divisions between right and wrong were so clearly drawn.
I wanted revenge on the Slixt since their crimes against the species of the universe were indisputable. I secretly hoped that the rebel army did exist, and that it would win. But unlike Jane and John, I hadn’t quite made it to the level of convincing myself that I was a ( god ). And their actions would have an impact on everyone – whether anyone wanted a war or not, it was coming.
And even though the Earth was far away, and I was no longer in its orbit (physically or philosophically) there were lessons to be learned from my own people’s mistakes.
I’d never been one to follow world affairs, but you’d had to have lived under a rock to not know about certain things. Humans had come so far technologically, and socially, yet dictators and corrupt politicians used my planet like a chess-board while the real people (the good people) were the ones who suffered whenever one faction decided to overthrow another.
I’d always ignored the “inhumanity” of what that represented. I told myself that I couldn’t do anything to stop it… so why bother to think about it? The harsh truth was that I didn’t believe I could make a difference. Like, I was unable to steer my own life in the direction I wanted it to go… how in the world would I be able to help others?
And while I was killing time with my friends, or going to school, or trying to make a buck somewhere, injustice and cruelty raged across my planet. Unrestrained tyrants and would-be rebels fought over foreign lands and the people that just wanted to live peacefully were forced to flee the only home they had ever known. Many of them just wanted a “normal life”, like most people.
I wondered what would happen if the “most people” fought back. But to fight back they’d have to be willing to die for a poorly defined cause with an uncertain outcome, and I didn’t think that they were (I wish J&J were reading this).
Most people ran from war, famine, and political oppression in the hopes of finding a better life somewhere else. Many of those people had kids. Whole families. Relatives and friends that they cared about, who were too old, or too young, to make the choice for themselves. When the parents fled the violence, they took their kids with them. Those kids then found themselves in strange countries, filled with strange people, and strange cultures. And like me, they’d have to come to grips with their new reality. And as I had, they would too.
We were all victims of circumstances beyond our control.
Day 215, a word to the wise:
That afternoon I revisited every section of the city that I’d become familiar with over the seven months since my arrival. There were people and places to see. To say goodbye to.
Whenever I encountered a familiar alien, I spoke to them in hushed whispers. The good ones, the bad ones, the irritating ones, and even the scary ones. Moving from street to street, I shook an arm-thing here, or patted a slimy hump there, and sometimes just kept a safe enough distance.
Everyone got the same message: ‘War is coming tomorrow. I just wanted you to know so that you can decide what you want to do. Spread the word.’
Most of them were alarmed. Some were angry. Some were supportive. Some didn’t believe me. A few of the aliens asked me what they should do, or what I was going to do. But every time I just shook my head, wished them well, and trudged through the darkening city in search of more friends and acquaintances while Jerkface and Wheezy worked on their own mission.
Day 215, my old enemy:
The last stop on my list was the “Office of the Controller”, but I never made it there. A few blocks from the sidewalk cafe I felt myself suddenly gripped by a wet tentacle and feared the worst. But then P’shush’t’s familiar sub-titles floated across my vision, ( Just keep walking ).
So I did.
P’shush’t released my arm and slimed along beside me. ‘You’ve been real busy, Human.’
I didn’t look over at the slug. ‘Yeah, I guess I have.’
( Slixt fart-burping ) ‘And I assume that you were coming to see me just now?’
Dodging around a Kiliak vendor’s stall, I replied. ‘Yes, actually.’
The eyes on the near side of its head were tracking me, ‘And?’
I sighed, and not just because I wanted the Slixt to see the sub-title. ‘War is coming.’ It was as good a summary as any.
It made sense, how could they not? ‘And you don’t care?’
‘The Slixt care about this city more than a Nerfnerk like you can imagine.’
‘But you’re going to let it happen anyway?’
‘Some things just need to happen, Human. But I must admit that I’m surprised that you decided to tell me… You certainly took your time about it, of course, probably because you expected it would be too late for us to do anything to stop the violence at this point. But I’m curious…’
We turned down a nameless alleyway where vendors were hawking Slixt’mas cards and costumes ahead of the next day’s celebrations. I no longer cared if J&J were following me and had now found out about P’shush’t. They’d accused me of double-crossing them, and they would be surprised to find out that I hadn’t turned them in (exactly).
The Slixt said, ‘Why didn’t you try to stop it?’
It wasn’t easy answering P’shush’t’s question. ‘Was there ever a way to do that? If not the Humans, then it would have been someone else, wouldn’t it? You seem to want this thing to happen for some reason, so I guess you’ll get your wish. As for me? I just wanted everyone to choose for themselves.’
P’shush’t seemed to think about what I had said, then it stopped sliming and turned to face me. It held out a tentacle about waist height. After a few seconds it said, ‘Good-bye Human.’
I reached out and shook its tentacle and then walked off in the opposite direction.
A few hours later while I was resting my legs in the shadow of a Zane’Desleena stall, a new message pinged on my backup tablet. It was from Jerkface: ( You were right. We followed them back to their new base. Meet us in two hours. )
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