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Chapter 5 – Life Balance

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 35, I’d been living here for more than a month already:

I still hadn’t made it to the Resettlement Office, nor had P’shush’t contacted me about the job we discussed weeks earlier. Meanwhile, Nixa had been assigned to another case so I was no longer her problem in that regard (but we had taken to hanging out on her days off, so I remained her problem in other areas).

We were walking around the outer ring of Perimeter Park, a wide green area that circled the entire city, sandwiched between two layers of buildings. The outer-portion of the city, on this side of the ring-shaped park was my part of town (otherwise known as the “not-so-great part of town”). Rents were cheap where I lived (free in fact) which was good, because my account balance was hovering around nil due to a pronounced lack of income. Whatever else could be said about the Slixt, they at least provided their “citizens” with free room and board.

This side of the green zone was full of scraggly fields, run-down parkettes, and grass-like areas with sparsely spaced tree-things that, though not quite the trees I grew up around, were a welcome and natural sight. Further on, in the middle part of the park grew dense foliage that formed a thick canopy. Depending on which part of the ring you were in, the plants varied from coniferous and deciduous zones, all the way to thick jungles and even arid cactus-y sections. All of this, Nixa told me, was designed to support the myriad of strange and sometimes awesome-looking aliens that inhabited its depths.

Most of the aliens that lived in the forested areas didn’t appreciate people from the outer city trespassing into their zone. That could make travel difficult, but Nixa assured me there were dedicated tunnels and crossings that people like us (deadbeats) could use (in theory) to cross into the innermost city ring. If you haven’t figured it out by now, that’s the “fancy” part of town (said fancy-pants (most of them probably don’t wear pants) might not let us in, even if we had a reason to go there. Which we didn’t).

Nixa described the inner ring in extravagant detail, as if she’d spent time there. She spoke of an even smaller ring. One that housed exclusive parklands and mansions, but it was doubtful that I’d ever see either one. And finally, she described a small circular smelly-swampy mess (hostile to almost all other lifeforms except for the Slixt) in the very middle of the city. The Slixt lived in and around an enormous, towering spike in the center. As far as anyone knew, it was the only place that you could access the rest of the ship – aside from the birthing level and the few maintenance areas where people were allowed to work (think crap-recycling and sewers). 

The spiky citadel, as I thought of it, was visible from anywhere in the city where you could get high enough, or see far enough from. From here it was also obvious that the city itself was constructed of a different material than the domed “sky” and the spike. Those were a part of the ship’s hull/structure, and I wondered if this information could come in useful at some point.

There were no windows in the outer wall and Nixa told me that nobody had ever seen the “outside” before. I felt that this was a bad sign, but Nixa assured me that even if I could have looked, there’d be nothing to see but bleak and empty space, dotted here and there with stars. It made no difference to me if what she had told me was true, I still yearned to see beyond the walls of my cage. Even nothing would be better than a thing that was this awful.

All in all, what I learned of the ship’s geography complicated my escape/rebellion plans. I thought about these often, alternating between the two in my mind. Any potential escapees/rebels would have to cross both of the nature-reserve rings to get close enough to the Slixt to do away with them. A small army would be required (notice how the word army includes the word arm, which I discovered is another word for weapon, and the general populace didn’t have any of those). I’d been researching armies and weapons a lot. Someone would have to enlist a good portion of my fellow citizens for any of that to work. Not that most people weren’t eager to escape (probably; this wasn’t something you could really talk about openly). A good few must want to escape, but I wasn’t sure how anyone could get such a large conspiracy going without the Slixt finding out about it and, you know, disappearing us all.

Maybe the Slixt weren’t as dumb as they looked.

The ( brilliance ) of the Slixt wasn’t that they’d managed to create a gigantic space-faring cage for hundreds of thousands of aliens… it was the fact that they made a prison that encouraged the occupants to work against each other, instead of trying to escape as a group. Even back on Earth, people preferred to focus on their differences rather than try to make their lives better. Or to better the lives of their neighbors.

Perhaps the whole universe was like that, operating on a principle of self-interest which ensured that everyone kept each other down while only a select few would be able to climb up and reap the rewards of the system.

This was depressing.

I thought about the tunnels that led to the center of the city. Nixa mentioned that they could be closed off by the Slixt at the first sign of trouble. Even if someone was able to make it that far, they’d need to find a way to get across the acid-swamps without melting. Then they’d have to assault the citadel-spike. And by that point, would anyone be left alive to get control of the ship? Even if the stupid slugs weren’t much tougher than they looked (and unfortunately they were) there was an unknown number of them, and they actually had real weapons. Powerful ones. The Slixt wouldn’t be giving up their ship without a fight, that was for sure.

I’d have to turn my escape plans toward the hull. But first, I’d have to build a whole new spaceship without anyone noticing because I’d be needing one for step two.

So that was that.


Day 35, in the ring-park:

Nixa, noticing that I was lost in my thoughts (again), directed me toward a seating area in a particularly scruffy and rundown part of the outer park. The tree-things off in the distance seemed much more appealing. The canopy buzzed with flying aliens, zipping this way and that. Compared to my apartment/cell, the forested parts of the city seemed lovely. But they always say that the grass is greener on the other side and all that (in this case it really was). It was the same on Earth, and it didn’t bother me there, so why did I care up here? Expecting the Slixt to create a better version of society felt ridiculous, even to me.

Nixa and I settled into a couple of “reclining-knobs” (human style chairs were rare given the diversity of alien configurations). The artificial sun reflected off the stylish and sleek metal backpack that Nixa wore more or less constantly. It looked like something you’d see on a space-suit.

She noticed my scrutiny. ‘You’re looking at my ( jump-pack ) again.’

I fidgeted. ‘I never know where to look. I don’t want to offend anyone, but even after living here for a month, everything is still strange, and… er, you must have a lot of stuff in there I’ll bet.’

( confused ) ‘Stuff? Oh, you think this is a ( storage device ), like that moldy sack you’re always carrying around!’

Moldy sack? ‘Backpack,’ I said glumly. I’d thought about replacing it, recycling it even, but couldn’t bear to part with anything from home. I was even wearing the same clothes I’d come in – though they’d been cleaned every day in the “bathroom”.

Nixa was trying to follow my line of reasoning, ( perplexed ) ‘Back-pack? Isn’t that what I said?’

‘Never-mind. What’s a jump-pack?’

( averting, conflicted ) I hadn’t expected my question to cause that reaction. Nixa said, ‘Don’t look at me like that, it creeps me out. Fine, I’ll tell you. Flight is important to my species, both as a symbol of status and of freedom, but most of us can’t fly naturally. Queens can, they have full wings, but only Queens. Females possess vestigial ones that aren’t sufficient for flying. Males and drones have none at all.’

I said without thinking, ‘You? A queen?’

( embarrassed, fidgeting )

‘Ehhh, I’m really sorry. I didn’t… I, uh.’

Nixa stared at the distant trees and I wondered if that’s where she lived (she’d never mentioned where that might be, and she’d never invited me over to hers).

‘It’s ok,’ she said. ‘I’m just a regular Cht’xst’tk-ian.’ ( sighing ) ‘There’s nothing special about me. Not anymore. I don’t have wings – very few of us do – but many of us still want to fly. I… it’s hard to let go of some things. And, it’s considered an ( honor ) to have one, only I…’

Nixa seemed ashamed, but if I had a jump-pack I’d fly everywhere, all the time. That made me wonder if she was just slumming around with me. On the other hand, I was impressed, envious, and trying to think of a way to ask her if I could borrow it. But in the meantime I asked, ‘How come I’ve never seen you fly?’

( serious ) ‘My people cherish flight, but it happens only rarely. Combat, emergencies, or… mating.’

I didn’t feel particularly keen to fight or mate with her (how would that even work), so I didn’t say anything for a few moments, making an effort to avoid looking at Nixa or the jump-pack.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she said finally.

‘Go on then.’

‘You can’t have one. While other species have similar tech, we are not allowed to share this gift.’

So there it was. ‘I see,’ I replied slowly, while also thinking that Nixa’s resistance could be worn down over time. Eventually she had to let me try it out. But there were other questions that needed answering. ‘I don’t want this to come across the wrong way and all, but how can you even afford such a thing? The replication cost for something like that must be enormous.’

( offended ) ‘You think that I stole it? Or something worse?’

‘No! No!’ I backpedaled. ‘Um, nothing like that, just curious. We’re always broke. Me especially, not having a job yet… and don’t think that I haven’t noticed that you’re always treating me to stuff, but, I uh… maybe we should just forget it, yeah?’

Nixa looked ( wistfully ) at the tree line, where the “good” people lived, her mind surely imagining the life that others led over there as a wave of ( discomfort ) washed across her features. I started to stand, but the awkwardness of the moment had passed and she waved for me to sit down. Relaxing back into the hard nub wasn’t easy. She looked at me for a moment and said, ‘It was a gift from the other Cht’xst’tk-ians, shortly after I arrived here.’

I desperately wanted to hear more, but was too afraid of saying the wrong thing and ruining the moment. ‘I wanted to ask you about that.’

‘What? About my abduction? I see, you must be curious, but you’ll be disappointed. Like you, I don’t entirely remember how I arrived here.’

That was an interesting conversation I would have liked to have later, but first, ‘No, about the others of your kind. The Chert… the Chie… er, your people.’

( pensive ) She paused and then spoke softly, eyeing the tree-line again. ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about them.’

Maybe I should’ve kept my mouth shut (more often). I said, ‘Sorry for prying Nixa. It’s totally understandable that you wouldn’t want… talking about my people is hard too.’


Day 38, in a bit of a panic:

We hadn’t spoken much after the scene in the park. I had probably angered Nixa in some way, but couldn’t remember saying anything particularly offensive. Nixa was likely pissed-off at me for other reasons; chiefly, my continued lack of gainful employment. The Resettlement Office couldn’t be avoided forever because Nixa paid for everything whenever we went out together (having my own source of income would alleviate some of the tension).

With a heavy heart, I recycled my old smartphone from Earth. It was a big step, because it had all my stuff on it (photos, music, contacts, bookmarks). The whole of my previous life. But there was no way to power the phone, and I really needed some money. Later that day, I offered to buy Nixa lunch. When she found out what I’d done, she was horrified. She said that she had been thinking about a way to get it back online for me.

I cried after that, first in front of Nixa, and then later alone in my room with the lights out. That phone had pictures of my friends and family on it. And now I’d never see any of them ever again (except for when I closed my eyes and tried to remember what they looked like).

People I’d known my whole life were already slipping away from me. In between bouts of misery/self-pity, I wondered what they were doing back on Earth, and whether they missed me.


Day 44, my only friend:

Eventually Nixa opened up about her true feelings. We were at a late-night food stall when she finally started talking about herself. After everything that had happened, maybe she felt like she owed it to me (I guess I still don’t fully know why she did it).

The mood shifted as we ate in silence, Nixa’s eyes swimming in and out of focus.

‘I’ve seen that look before,’ I said, taking a sip of my fizzy drink.

‘What look?’

‘The one you’ve got just now. In the park, you couldn’t take your eyes off those trees. Toward the good part of town.’

‘And?’

‘That’s where you’re from isn’t it? Not originally, I mean, obviously you were taken from wherever it was that you were taken…’

‘A colony world.’

I knew that Nixa’s species was more advanced than Humanity, but not that they’d begun to explore the stars and had the ability to travel to distant worlds. How distant? I could only guess. It didn’t seem that important at the time. ‘I man, after  that – after the flesh-sacks. I’m assuming that everyone comes in the same way, and I’m guessing that Jerkface didn’t drop you into a crappy apartment like mine. Admit it, the Slixt didn’t shove you into a tiny room with a glorp-and-water dispenser, did they? They took you through an access tunnel and into the lap of luxury… you lived over there.’

( sadly ) ‘Don’t say it like that. You don’t know how it went for me after I arrived.’

I held her gaze, saw the lenses of her eyes wobble, misting over, and softened my expression. ‘So tell me. Please.’

She looked down at the table, click-sighed, and slowly raised her head, looking into my eyes. ‘Yes. What you just said is essentially true.’

I waited.

‘They brought me straight there. To be with others of my kind. Shortly after the test, I found out that more than three hundred of my species were living in this city – how many more or less are here now, I couldn’t say.’

‘You haven’t spoken to any of them? For how long?’

She shook her head. ‘Not for eight years,’ she said to the tabletop.

Eight years. She had been here for so long. Almost half of her life. I shuddered, thinking that I’d be here that long, and that long again at least. Jerkface’s words coming back to me: the rest of my days, however many were left.

She reacted to my shudder by closing down, shutting me out. I reached over, putting my hand on top of hers. I still wasn’t used to how different and alarming touching her was. Her skin looked like burnished steel, but was surprisingly supple, the tips of her claws pressing against my palm like knife blades.

Nixa relaxed a little, started to draw her hand away, then settled back. ‘Thanks,’ she said quietly.

I nodded at her encouragingly. ‘Please go on.’

( half-smile ) ‘It’s been nine years since I was taken. Not long in terms of my lifespan, but I know that you understand as well as anyone, that this is a long time to be stuck here. Like you, I was terrified and angry. And like you, I lashed out all the time.’

As if confirming what was going through my head, she tapped the side of my hand with her thumb-thing. ‘All I’m saying is that I understand what it’s like. You must think that having others of my kind here would have been a tremendous advantage for me. I thought so too… at first.

‘My people took me in with open arms, but they had ( ulterior motives ). It wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts. And yes, they gave me the lift-pack that I wear on my back. Mine was stolen by one of the aliens that captured me. When I arrived, my people were happy to see me, and they showed it. They gave me fine clothes, food native to my home world, and they tried to create a more-or-less perfect life for me.’

‘And?’

( resigned ) ‘It wasn’t meant to be, for them or for me.’

‘What do you mean? You rejected them? Who’d want to live like we do? Like, if they had the choice.’

‘I get what you’re saying, but for all the choices that we have, there are things that we just have to accept.’

I patted her hand encouragingly.

She said, ‘Choices. From the moment you pupate – ’ my stomach lurched at that, ‘ – your fate is sealed. Whether you grow into a drone, a warrior, a worker, a nurse, whatever… whatever it is that you were born to be, is what you are forever … except…’

‘Except for becoming a queen?’

Nixa’s hand tensed and a ( troubled expression ) flashed across her features. She composed herself and said, ‘Yes. Except for that… as a female of my species I might have become a Queen someday. I might have had real status, and maybe a colony of my own. Tens of thousands of kin and children. A Queen in every sense of the word…’

‘But?’

‘But I was born to be a ( handmaiden ). I don’t know if there’s a word for it in your language, but it’s a kind of servant. One who serves the current Queen, if there is one.’

‘And if there isn’t one?’

( smiling sadly ) ‘You see it don’t you? Or I think that you do. There’s no Cht’xst’tk-ian Queen in this place. There never will be. The Slixt wouldn’t allow it. They wouldn’t want the city to be swarmed by my kind. I don’t know how the Slixt choose the people that they abduct, but I feel in my ( soul ) that it isn’t arbitrary. While they don’t have a lot of Humans here – for whatever reason – there are many different communities, some numbering in the hundreds or thousands. We could ask the Slixt, but I don’t see them answering our questions.’

I could appreciate her point. ‘So what happened? The handmaiden bit isn’t the end of the story, surely?’

( faraway look ) ‘It’s like I said. They had a ( handmaiden ) and no Queen, but they wanted a Queen desperately. You would think that this would be a big problem, but my people were overjoyed. Back on my colony I was destined to serve, but here, I was destined to be served. It was a lot to take in. I don’t know how it is on your world, but on mine, I was a ( handmaiden ) and then I became ( royalty ).’

‘We have royalty too… kind of.’

‘Then you can understand. At least a little. Imagine all of the shock and horror involved with being taken and trapped here, but…’

I gave her a rueful smile, ‘But here you get to be Queen of the World.’

‘Yes! And who wouldn’t want that? Wouldn’t you?’

I had to admit that being adored by throngs of my own people and treated like a superstar would have been alright. ‘Sure.’

‘A Queen. Something that I thought would never happen and given up hope of ever becoming. And then it was real. At least for a time…. but it didn’t take long for Slixt to find out what was happening. It wasn’t something that we could hide. My people exposed me to certain ( hormones )… chemicals that would hasten the process. ’

I swallowed hard, enthralled by her story and what it meant for her to share it.

She examined the claws on her other hand. ‘I was beginning to transform.’

‘Wait, did you say transform? How?’

She pulled her hand away from mine, my palm warm from her touch but chilling quickly in the night air. She continued, ‘I started to grow, to become more female than I had been, my skin turning red… and…’ ( embarrassed )

Nixa’s “skin” was reddish-brown. Had she not mentioned changing color, I would have assumed all of her people were like her. ‘Please don’t stop now,’ I said

‘I don’t know if I can explain it,’ she said quietly, but after a while she blinked her lenses and cleared her eyes. ‘Things were happening fast – another week and it would have been too late to stop it. As it was, I had already grown by a head – that’s why I’m so tall, you see. But then the Slixt came. Not ( friendly-friendly ) or acting stupid like they usually do, but serious, and armed with their powerful weapons. I hid in my rooms. Downstairs I could hear the elders arguing with the Slixt. Then the sound of energy weapons, followed by the deepest silence I’d ever heard…

‘In the end, it was no use. We were forbidden to have a Queen. Our people would have to give up any thoughts of having one, or I would be taken away… and we all knew what that meant. Whether the Slixt intended to kill me or not, the ( implication ) was clear. It wasn’t the first time that a person disappeared and didn’t come back.’

‘So what happened next?’

( uncomfortable ) ‘My people tried to reverse the process. They didn’t want me to die, for some reason, even though I was a huge embarrassment to them by that point. It would have been more ( honorable ) if they just killed me. I don’t know if it was because they liked me, or if they thought that they could have another chance at a Queen someday. But they resolved to stop my metamorphosis…

‘I can’t talk about what happened next, what they said, what I told them… In the end, they gave me even more powerful injections, but different from the first ones. My body wanted to grow, but the new ( hormones ) wanted the opposite. I spent the next few months in my bed, wracked in waves of unending pain, but they continued to inject me, day after day. Their anger was palpable… they had invested so much, and now they wanted the whole thing to go away. And I wanted ( desperately ), to go away too.’

I couldn’t look her in the eyes. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said quietly.

‘Don’t be. I’m not. I had my chance to be something better than what I was, but I missed it. Many people have a potential that they don’t, or can’t, live up to. Eventually the injections stopped and the doctors overseeing my recovery went away. But not before they… they found…’ Nixa had totally broken down by this point (I had never seen her like this and hoped I never would again). Acidic tears streamed down her face. 

She wouldn’t stop crying. I put my hand against her face, rubbing a tear off of her cheek-parts, my thumb tingling at the acidic touch. Nixa managed a barky-snotty-laugh that might have been a universal sign that the crying part was almost nearly over. She brushed away my hand and smiled at me (which was still very creepy).

She looked away and said. ‘So now you know almost all of it, but I haven’t completed the story. After that, I was finished. They were done with me and I was done with them. What nobody had realized was that the treatment that halted my metamorphosis had also made me ( infertile ). I left the day after I found out, and they never came looking for me. They never will. I’ll never be a Queen. I’ll never be anything. My own people consider me a monster, the same as I consider them. They did this to me, even though I wanted it to happen… and then they… they threw me in the ( expletive garbage )!’

She sniffled. ‘You should find yourself a better friend… I’m all but useless to anyone.’

I wanted badly to hug her then but didn’t. Instead, I came around to the other side of the table and sat down beside her, her shoulder touching mine, saying nothing.

Even if I could have found the words, what good would they do?



***




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