Trigger warning: portions of this book may deal with drugs, sex, suicidal ideation, having to get a job, speciesism, and other things that might not be super pleasant to encounter.
Day 6, the many deaths of Humans:
Nixa’s revelation floored me. I couldn’t believe that the last Human would do that… to themselves. In some ways my mind struggled to understand, but in other all too real ways, it was able to. I’d only been here for six days and there had already been times, alone in my room, thinking about home… about how I’d never see it again… I recognized those feelings and could relate to them (that knowledge, even from a distance, was difficult to confront). I couldn’t let myself go out like that.
Sub-titles be ( damned ), but Nixa had the grace to turn away. Her head hung low while my feet continued to carry me numbly behind her as we weaved through the crowd.
She caught me when I stumbled over some creature’s appendage, reaching back with one clawed hand-thing. I hesitated. Then grabbed out blindly. Her “fingers” were warm, and smooth, and creepy. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to stomach the idea of holding on.
Her hand tensed, hard as iron, then soft again while I cycled through feelings of frustration and shame. A few seconds later I shook her off, not caring what she may have thought of me in that moment.
We walked on for a while, continuing to say nothing – but this time it was side by side.
Day 6, an awkward time later:
Nixa hoped that a visit to the Recycler would take my mind off discussing things that we mutually wanted to avoid, but then again, it had been part of her ( itinerary ) all along.
The Recycling Center was big, and busy, with a dozen wide arched bays, and each one had a single counter in the center of it. Assorted aliens formed long lines leading up to the bays, carrying containers filled with all manner of rubbish (though some of that stuff looked useful). One by one, they slid their loads of crap across the counter, coming back out seemingly empty handed, but happy. I raised an eyebrow at Nixa, a question clearly obvious on my face.
She pointed at a mid-sized Lefguffian Honko (I discovered that the translator-bolt’s settings could be adjusted on my tablet and I now had access to the species-names of aliens, along with their sub-titled speech). Anyway, this Honko had just dropped a big box on the counter nearest us. Nixa said, ‘Recyclers will take just about anything. Inorganic items for the most part, but also select organics. They won’t take anything that’s alive. Or kicking.’
‘Good to know.’
( stern ) ‘Once you collect up a few things that you don’t need anymore, you can take them here. The Demobs -’ (who were the flatulently-gruesome collapsing-balloon-animal species of aliens that ran the recycling racket…)
Nixa gave me another glare, ‘- are you listening? The Demobs will give you resource credits in exchange for goods, but they’ll take a percentage off the top.’
‘I’ll bet. Resource credits?’
She showed me something approximating a bank statement on her tablet. I didn’t understand, and it became no clearer when she said, ‘Yeah, look here, everything is measured in ( grams ). Argon. Helium. Carbon…’
‘Carbon? What the ( expletive ) am I going to do with carbon?’
‘Have you been paying attention? This is the only recycler in this part of town, so mark it on your map. And here, I’m sending you the proper exchange rates so they don’t short change you. They’ll try do that.’
‘Will you ( shut up ) about that already?’
If you asked me, I’d say that the Slixt almost definitely got a cut of the action too. And I had to admit that the recycling system was very interesting, if seemingly pointless. Unless Nixa had brought me there just to distract me from our earlier conversation. If so, her plan succeeded.
Nixa turned me around and pointed to a similar racket on the other side of the street, (I’d failed to notice it earlier). The nearly identical looking facility was run by a species of rat-like, space-cats. She said, ‘You see? The Cyclers are across the street.’
I didn’t see any bikes, but even I could tell that there were long lines of empty-handed aliens going up to counters and coming away carrying new-looking stuff.
‘A use for carbon?’
That prompted a genuine ( smile ) out of Nixa, which was great, or it would have been if an insecti-smile wasn’t absolutely horrifying. It was also the first time that I didn’t find myself constantly wishing that Nixa would get the ( curse ) out of my life.
She promised our next destination would be fun, leaving me wondering if I should be excited about anything that Nixa considered “fun”.
Day 6, variety is the spice of life:
There were alternatives to eating the protein-fudge-loaf that came squirting out of the dispenser in my living room wall. This was both a revelation, and also something new to dread. I had never been very “experimental” when it came to food but supposed that after a week of Slixt protein bars, I could try just about anything (I’m often wrong).
On the way back to my place, Nixa took me to a bustling marketplace filled with food stalls where I quickly learned that alien food fell into three categories.
The first category included things that approximated the food I was accustomed to eating on Earth, and which would stay down long enough to be considered nutritional. Whether or not it tasted good was another story, but I was somewhat surprised to discover a few dishes that I liked.
The second category included food that could be eaten (in theory) but was so off-putting that I’m throwing-up a little just thinking about it. Had I ever doubted that fact, I’d come to learn that the universe was full of wormy-type things in all shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of wrigglyness. A stunning array of alien beings found them wonderful to eat but I couldn’t bring myself to try. Nixa favored a specific kind of white grub from some stupid planet, but I steadfastly refused when she put a few on my plate. There was a small chance that they tasted better than ice-cream, but if Nixa was into them, that wasn’t likely. Besides, grubs were just another kind of worm. No thanks.
The final category encompassed things that were dangerous to eat, such as parasites and symbiotes (Nixa explained that some foods literally “melded” themselves to your body, and you’d be stuck with them until you could afford to have them removed). Then there were the poisons, the toxins, and squirming things that would probably just squirm their way right back out again (nevermind where from). This made shopping in the market daunting, to say the least. On the upside, stalls that sold one kind of food that I could eat tended to have other kinds as well.
Nixa laughed as she watched my reactions to the various dishes, one of which produced an outbreak of hives. In the spirit of revenge, I made her try some new things as well, hooting when she went running for the nearest bin. At least until I saw that other aliens were happy to eat that.
All in all, it had been a good time, I guess.
Day 10, alone in my room:
My mind couldn’t let go of the idea that other Humans had lived here and hadn’t made it. That “making it” in the Slixt city wouldn’t be as straightforward as I had assumed. Then again, back home it wasn’t that much easier (not that I was likely to ever get the chance to live a normal life and find out). I struggled to think of any people back on Earth who actually lived a “normal life”, outside of the media that is. Lots of people seemed to fake it pretty well, but was anyone having an easy time of it?
I thought about things like that a lot (almost all the time), but I’m not going to talk about that in this account. Not unless I absolutely have to. When the Slixt took me, I lost everything, and what I hadn’t lost, they’d taken from me. People have a right to keep a small part of who they are, to themselves. Sometimes that makes all the difference between letting oneself fall into the abyss and having the strength to back away from the edge, no matter how tempting. It wasn’t hard to imagine how the previous Humans might have wandered off the path and into the darkness. But where exactly had the other Humans gone wrong? Had they yearned for Earth like me? Or had they tried to assimilate, like Nixa?
There was no way of knowing which option was worse, nor which one I’d end up choosing.
Day 13, those awful machines:
Watching galactic television was possibly the strangest experience I’d experienced so far, which is saying a lot. For the past few days I’d been binge-watching episodes of “Humans are Dumb” (a show hosted by a couple of highly disturbed robots that called themselves Bleep n’ Bloop). I couldn’t get enough of it. They’d made a whole show about pranking Humans, but get this: the Humans that they tormented every week weren’t from Earth (I know!).
At first I wondered if the Humans might be aboard the Slixt ship, despite Nixa and P’shush’t’s denials. That the robots might be broadcasting from a secret location inside the city. If that was the case, then I was the punchline in a cruel joke. But if it was just a joke, then maybe it meant that once they’d had their fun, they might let me go (most of me knew better than to actually believe that).
The Humans I saw on the show lived on space-stations, in small outposts, and on planets I’d never even heard of. This suggested that there were other people in the universe. Not just on Earth, I mean. And judging by the weekly broadcast there were lots of them out there doing futuristic things. Interestingly, those Humans weren’t all that different from the ones I’d known my whole life, tending to have the same sorts of problems and motivations. If the people back on Earth knew about the “others”, it was a closely guarded secret – but Humans were terrible at keeping secrets, so I doubted anyone did know.
Watching episodes of “Humans are Dumb” gave me a chance to see people like me. To watch their reactions to the various tricks the two robots played on them (in many ways it was extremely racist (or would that be humanist?)).
Of all the species in the universe they could have chosen, I couldn’t figure out why the robots had picked Humans in particular to mess with. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen any robots aboard the ship either. But now that I’ve met other species, I don’t think that as a Human I’m any more gullible than a Bibble-Bloxt or a Krebupian Flug.
Still, I treasured the chance to watch Bleep n’ Bloop do their thing, setting up the vid-display to record every single episode. Sure, I felt a little guilty about watching the show, considering what they were doing to the Humans (nobody had died… so far), but it was the only connection I had to my people.
Day 16, city-life:
As the days passed, between “Humans are Dumb” marathons, I found myself venturing out into the city more often. I was no longer content to sit on the couch all day, alone, even with my addiction to Bleep n’ Bloop. Within days I grew familiar with the area a few blocks around my apartment. Before long, finding myself spending as much time outdoors as inside. The aliens around me gradually became less strange, and I even got to know a few of them. Not as friends, but more like “Hey, how’re you?” and “Have a nice day” and all that.
It was easy to convince myself that “fitting in” could be useful later on. Gaining the alien’s trust and all that.
To top it all off, Nixa’s continued presence in my life stopped feeling as annoying as it once had been, the more-so because I knew that she’d be gone soon. Her contract to help me get adjusted to life aboard the ship would be ending in a few days, when she could declare with pride: “job done”. And then she could move on to the next loser.
Sometimes I found myself missing her presence when she wasn’t around.
Day 18, I’m getting worried, for a lot of reasons, but not the ones that I expected:
If a doorbell could ring ( angrily ), mine was doing it. I got up with a sigh, hit the access plate, and let Nixa sweep past me the millisecond the door swooshed open.
Without any hesitation, she launched into: ‘You promised that you’d think about getting a job,’ ( pointedly ) waving a clawed finger in my direction.
Nixa had tried taking me to the Resettlement Office a number of times over the last few days, but I always found some lame excuse as to why I couldn’t make it. The thought of “resettling” or “settling” seemed like a major concession/decision that I wasn’t ready to make.
I stared up at the ceiling, trying to determine if any new cracks had developed recently, while Nixa seethed around the room, pacing. ‘A job…’ I repeated slowly, as if it were a foreign word I hadn’t yet learned the meaning of.
( exasperated ) ‘Yes. A job. You need one.’
I didn’t see the point.
She crossed her long arms, clearly having learned the gesture from me.
( irritated ) ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you have a real way with words? … No? I didn’t think so. Look, if you don’t want to work, you can always get an education. We could get you a spot at one of the learning centers. You’d fit in just fine with the grubs, sprouts, and little fur-balls.’
Was Nixa actually asking me to choose between something that sounded a lot like pre-school, or getting a job? That was a tough one. Luckily, I had a clever comeback ready. ‘As if I’d go back to school.’
( sternly ) ‘Then you’re going to have to work.’
Before I knew it, I was pacing as well, and the room wasn’t big enough for both of us to wander randomly, so we found ourselves circling each other like a couple of angry vultures. ‘I refer to my original statements on the matter: what and why? I have perfectly good protein-loaf to eat,’ I said, pointing to the dispenser. ‘And…’
( at wit’s end ) ‘You’re lazy, is what it is. In fact, you might as well be half Slixt, or maybe even three-quarters. You can’t get by forever on those ( expletive ) nutrient-bars and plain water, you know. Don’t you want anything out of life besides a handout from the Slixt?’
That one hit home. ‘That’s a low blow.’
Nixa seemed perplexed. She checked her comm unit, pulling up the translation of what I just said – that was a neat feature of the tablets. ‘I don’t understand how telling you to get a job is equivalent to ( hitting your sex-organs )? Whatever that means… I think it’s disgusting.’
She crossed her arms again.
I actually laughed out loud, amused by all the body-language she had already picked up from me. When I could finally speak again without laughing I said, ‘It’s just an expression, it doesn’t translate well.’
( sternly ) ‘I should hope not… are all Humans so adept at changing the subject, or is it just you?’
‘Er, I think it’s something that comes naturally to us. Most of us anyway. It might be the most Human trait I can think of. All the same, I don’t want to get a job.’
‘Well, you’re going to have to. I’m not going to keep buying you treats at the food stalls. I have to work too you know, and I can’t afford to be taking care of every ( ungrateful alien ) that passes through this city.’
We bickered about it for another half-hour, and then Nixa said she had to go. But not before I promised to take care of it. I told her that I’d prefer to go to the Resettlement Office on my own… that I couldn’t bear to have her there while some alien functionary in a government office decided my fate. It was too humiliating.
What I didn’t tell her though, was that I had other plans.
Day 19, I suppose it was inevitable:
Half of a plan is better than none (in terms of getting a job, I mean). I still hadn’t gotten a handle on the whole escape thing, so I figured that earning money and doing more of that “fitting in” stuff would come in handy. Camouflaging myself in a semblance of respectability might result in greater freedom of movement and, by extension, improve my ability to put an escape plan together. I didn’t know how I’d get away from this place on my own yet, but thought about it constantly. Many of my fantasies involved blasting my way onto a shuttle and zipping across the universe back to Earth.
What was I talking about again? Right, the job… I had accepted that I needed one and had a very specific role in mind, but to realize my aims, I’d need to go see P’shush’t. And that’s how I found myself back at the seedy patio-bar where the Slixt Controller usually hung out.
It wasn’t there. I freaked out a little, but quickly decided to check inside the bar, and that’s where I found it, sliming up a booth in the back surrounded by a few hangers-on. Taking Nixa’s advice about the translation-bolt, I did my best to control my expression and approached the table. The Slixt tracked my movement with at least three of its open eyes. When I was a few steps away, P’shush’t waved its tendrils at the assembled bootlickers and they slowly scattered away to other tables – which was a relief, because I needed a few moments alone with it.
I decided not to sit. P’shush’t probably didn’t care or understand what my attitude implied. If it did, it gave no outward sign. The Slixt addressed me just as I reached the table, ‘You again Human? You must need something from me, but I don’t yet know why you would think that it was a good idea to ask.’
Unsure of which eye to look at, I addressed its mouths, ‘Yeah, about that. I was, er… I was kind of hoping that you’d be able to help me out.’
P’shush’t bristled its tentacles. ‘You’re experiencing cognitive dissidence.’
It waved a few tentacles toward the exit, ‘That’s the problem with Humans. Your brain capacity hasn’t caught up to reality. Your limited mind understands that there’s a gap between what you think should be happening and what is actually happening. But it rejects the obvious conclusion because the only question the Human brain is capable of asking is: what about me? … You should be thinking about how you might benefit society, instead of focusing on your own ( pitiful ) needs.’
I countered, ‘You call this crap-hole a society? Are you talking about all the captives out there? None of us asked for this, and I don’t get why the Slixt do it.’
P’shush’t rolled a few of its eyes. ‘This is tiresome Human. Your discomfort arises from the belief that what you want individually should stand paramount to what is good for everyone. You have only lived in this city for a short time, but all you have managed to do so far, is drain precious resources and lower the morale of your fellow citizens. You don’t need to waste time asking a lot of stupid questions and moping around thinking that everything is unfair. Make something of yourself Human.’
‘If you’re serious, then you could help me.’
The Slixt’s eyes widened, ( sneering ), ‘Help? You? With what?’
It waved a few tentacles ( dismissively ), ‘Go to the Resettlement Office.’
‘I don’t give a ( curse ) about the Resettlement Office… I want a specific job.’ My delivery sounded confident to my ears, but my knees were shaking.
P’shush’t seemed genuinely ( curious ). I guessed it hadn’t been expecting any spine from me, having none itself. ‘I’m listening,’ it said.
Then I explained what I had in mind. The Slixt said nothing, occasionally waving a tentacle or scrutinizing me with a half dozen or more eyes. Some of them narrowed into slits while others zeroed in on me with a more frank gaze.
When I was done talking, it said ( lazily ), ‘Is that all that you want from me?’
‘It’s a start, yes.’
( laughing ) ‘Humans have a lot of ( Slixt genitals ), I’ll give you that… you would owe me, that is assuming that I agree to your curious demand, for this… this… ( favor ). Which you have no right to ask.’
‘I accept your terms, slug.’
It was the word that Nixa warned me not to use. P’shush’t puffed up and bristled its tentacles, but then it shut a few eyes and said, ‘I’ll think about it Human. Run along now, I’m busy.’
Day 21, a random encounter:
I was out on one of my neighborhood walks when I met a small Querfian by the name of Ziplo. We exchanged pleasantries (which rarely include abduction stories, and definitely nothing to do with escape plans).
The alien seemed like a decent sort, even if it did look like an inside-out teddy bear. By then I knew that socialization and “integration” were extremely important – for Nixa’s sake, if not my own. My lack of progress could affect her standing in the community, with the Slixt, or her job, and I had become reluctant to cause her any trouble. More than usual, I mean.
Even so, there was an upper limit to how much small-talk could be made. In reply to my last comment, Ziplo puffed out a deep breath, and said, ‘No, our last Governor was a populist.’
‘Is that such a bad thing? There were a few of those types on Earth, and somehow the planet survived… I guess.’
‘Not that kind… she had a habit of eating the populace.’
End of Day 21, so that’s how they wanted it to be:
Nixa came over early, jittery and out of sorts. Over the last few weeks I had gotten to know her pretty well and was beginning to understand her moods (even without the translation). As usual, she was pacing around my living room, making me uncomfortable.
Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely paying attention to her current rant, but then she said something that caused me to perk up. She said, ( distractedly ), ‘… which means that my time with you is almost up. I have to move on to my next case. You aren’t the only ( misfit ) I have to deal with, you know.’
That hurt on a number of levels. ‘You’re leaving me?’
Nixa glanced at my monitor (that usually meant she was about to say something I wouldn’t like). The screen had been paused since she rang my bell. Two robots setting fire to a Human. I wondered what she thought about that, and if an explanation might be required. Her ( sour ) expression was reflected in the glass, and when she spoke it was to the screen, not to me. ‘I’m not sure that you need me anymore. You know how to get around the city. You seem to be able to take care of yourself. At least you’d like to think so… I’m not even sure why I’m still here, to be honest.’
‘Because maybe some small part of you likes my company?’ I asked hopefully.
( shrug ) ‘That can’t possibly be it.’
‘Aw come on Nixa. You can’t leave me. Not like this. There has to be something you like about me.’
‘Such as?’ she asked me ( skeptically ).
‘The banter?’ (I may be guilty of over-estimating my likability).
Nixa headed for the door, ‘Yes. You have a… unique intelligence. Goodbye.’
I ran after her, but she could move surprisingly fast when she wanted to and was already pressing the lift’s button as I leaned out the doorframe and yelled ‘Nixa!’
She pressed the elevator button repeatedly as I called after her, ‘Nixaaaaaa!’
Then she turned around so quickly I was instantly reminded that she was a scary alien-insect-woman. One that could rip me to shreds without raising her heart rate.
I winced at her shouted, ‘WHAT?’
Giving her a bright smile, I said, ‘See you tomorrow?’
She got into the lift, and as the doors started to close I heard a loud ( sigh ), and then grudgingly, ‘See you tomorrow.’
Smiling to myself, I went back into my room and un-paused the Bleep n’ Bloop episode I had been watching.
Those crazy robots.
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