I woke on the Andar spacecraft. My gut, where I had been shot, was repaired and pretty much healed. My left arm, which had been blown off by some kind of cluster grenade, was reattached and healing. Shrapnel wounds along the side of my body were healing. I was stiff but not what I would call sore.
I sat up and looked around. The bed and room, both large and perfectly cubed, were covered in a densely webbed moss. From certain points of view it sparkled fluorescent green. If you caught it just right, like one of those eye trick puzzles, the sparkles moved along a symmetrical grid. The moss on the bed was warm to the touch. Goopy and viscous but not sticky. It rippled like water when I touched it.
I slid off the bed onto the floor and stretched. As I walked to the nearest wall, the floor hardened and relaxed under my feat. The wall responded similarly to touch. What was this stuff? Organic? I saw nothing of a door or window or vent anywhere. I was entirely sealed up in here.
I became light headed. Claustrophobic. I panicked wondering where the oxygen was coming from.
I returned to the bed to sit, breath, and take a closer look at my wounds.
The fingers on my left arm were tingly, as if my hand had been asleep. I massaged them and then my hand and then my wrist. The tingly feeling moved up, into my arm. The bones and veins felt like cables. The more I massaged, the more my hand looked like that fluorescent green stuff was pulsing through it. Maybe this was not my arm at all but some kind of prosthetic? But there were my freckles and tattoos. All quite familiar. And not.
My gut and side were tingly to the touch. What I thought was bruising took on the fluorescent green coloring as I caressed the skin. I checked the rest of my body, becoming self-conscious of the fact that I was entirely naked.
I couldn’t complain. I was alive, after all, and had no real pain. I was so sure I had died in that battle. I remembered dying. Bloody and scared. Looking up into smoke. But here I was — where the hell was I? Overwhelmed and disoriented I laid down and fell asleep.
And so my time in that cubed room began. I was alone for a long while. Trying to figure out what was going on but not having the energy to stay awake for very long before needing to sleep again. Every time I woke, there was food and water and then a steady supply of clean clothes, shampoo, soap, towels. I hadn’t seen the toilet and sink and shower or table and chair at first but then I did. Had they moved me, or brought them in, while I slept?
I examined every inch of the room I could reach and fell into a routine of sleeping, eating, exercising. I really wanted something to read. Novels, other people’s stories. Anything to break the routine. I even wanted all of my books. I would read them again, which I never did — read a novel a second time. And then some books arrived.
I became convinced that the Andar were mind readers. To test my theory I began to meditate on wishes for this or that thing. Nothing complicated or fancy. Particular kinds of food, tea. They never took the bait or were ignoring me. My game didn’t work. So I tried another. I feigned panic attacks. I screamed about needing to see the sun, be outdoors. Even terrorists get an hour for exercise, I said, and I was no terrorist. If they were mind readers, there was no figuring out what they cared about. They never responded.
This whole time I didn’t know what the Andar looked like. I had seen their spacecraft. I had seen them covered up entirely in military uniforms. I knew they were large and not shaped like humans at all. But I had never seen them. And so for quite some time I became obsessed with the idea of seeing them. I banged at the walls and taunted and dared and bargained until I was horse. And still no one came.
Why would they heal me to leave me in here all alone? Was I an experiment? What kind of experiment has only one test subject?
Wait a minute. I might not be the only one. The only human locked in a cell. Maybe there were other cells nearby — this cube attached to others in a string of cubes? Maybe there were hundreds of us and we were on a prison barge. I became hopeful. There could be others. If we could communicate we could work together to get out of here.
For days and days I scratched and pushed and pulled at the moss covered walls until I cleared a small enough hole to see an underneath. It looked like some kind of metal but it didn’t act like metal. Push hard and it moved, returning to its shape after being left alone. Did it have memory? Like memory foam? Memory metal? Was that a thing? I wondered if I could use a leg from the table or chair to push through it long enough to see what was on the other side. I was trying to break a leg off the chair when a door appeared and an Andar walked into the room.
I shouldn’t say walked which implies legs. It has what looks like a couple dozen unevenly shaped and lengthed limbs dangling far down below its torso like roots on a tree. The limbs move in perfect synchronicity to give the Andar the appearance of gliding. I never saw the limbs used for any other purpose.
The Andar pulled the chair up from the floor and put it at the table, suspending its movement on the opposite side.
It had three arms that extended and retracted from its torso. It waited for me to sit before it extended one of its arms into the wall nearest us. The moss reached out and engulfed its arm. Parts of its torso and other arms took on the fluorescent green color. It stayed like that while I sat down.
I wanted to speak. To ask questions. But I sat quietly.
The Andar pulled away from the wall and turned toward me. I tried to behave as nonchalantly as I could but I know my heart was racing and I was shaking. I sat up, stiffly, and for the first time looked where I thought its face would be with as perfectly a ndn stoic expression as I could manage.
It was a mess of twists and turns of branch-like tentacles peppered with what looked like flower pedals, some folded over and some bloomed up and out, all moving slowly and quietly. I stared, looking for order. Slowly the pedals folded around the tentacles and the tentacles pulled back slightly to reveal a face. If you could call it that. It was human-like, as if it were trying to be. It had eyes and a mouth but no nose or ears. The eyes blinked, deliberately, and I near decomposed trying to appear casual. Like I had seen this a 1000 times before.
The Andar extended one of its arms to me, taking my left hand. Its arm became longer and narrower as it wrapped around mine like a snake, crawling up to my shoulder, resting its end near my neck. I couldn’t have moved if I tried. So I breathed deeply and kept my eyes on Andar’s face.
The sensation was one of being consumed. I felt my body give way. My mind suspended. I closed my eyes. Quietness came over me for a brief second. And then a flood of images and sounds began. Everything, all at once. Thousands of years of Andar history.
They were persecuted for their beliefs in their home galaxy. Rounded up, tortured, killed. They fled. They found a new world far, far away. They called it Gliese. The Gliesans were backwards and erratic and violent and waged a deadly war against the Andar. The Andar, forced to protect themselves, killed most of the Gliesans with their far superior technology. They took the survivors in.
Gliese was a small planet and the Andar used up its resources rather quickly. A short decade and Gliese was too polluted and contaminated for them to remain. So the Andar moved on. The Gliese were the first of many others — the Keplar, the Wolf, the Kapteyn, the Trappist, the Tau Ceti. The Earth was the latest. The Andar would use it up and move on. Humans who wanted to survive would have to become a part of Andar society.
Just before the Andar retracted its limb, it repeated a message: “Humans have a choice. Make it.”
The Andar disengaged and left and I collapsed onto the floor. After vomiting up the images and sounds of invasion and conquest and the abandonment of so many destroyed planets, I curled up on the bed and cried myself to sleep. The kind of cry you couldn’t stop even if you were embarrassed that someone else might see you.
That sleep I dreamt and saw a thousand of my ancestors standing around me. I didn’t want to wake up until I saw that they were crying. Salted tears that became a waterfall that fell from the sky to fill the Earth’s oceans and flood the lands. “It does not have to go this way,” they said. And then another voice, louder and further away, “Humans have a choice. Make it.”
I woke up. Startled. Afraid. The fear accumulated. It was now as present as the webbed moss. Responsive, pliable, indifferent.
I hadn’t heard an Andar’s voice until then. It had reentered the room — assuming it was the same one — from nowhere and gestured for me to sit at the table. I did. It hovered across from me. It pulled back its tentacles and its face emerged. More human looking this time. Softer.
Do you have a name, I asked, trying to be bold.
I am Andar.
I am a human but I am called Cerria. What are you called?
You feel fear.
You have fear.
I have questions. About what I’m doing in this cell. How long I’ve been here. How my family and friends are. What you are doing to the Earth. How many others you have locked up. I guess you could say I have fear.
You do not need to be afraid of these things.
Fear is not about need.
There is only one thing worth being afraid of — being alone.
Are there others here, like me? Are the others afraid of being alone?
You do not fear this?
I do not fear this. I am not alone.
Andar was silent.
Do you believe we are afraid?
I hadn’t thought about it since you are the ones in power.
There is responsibility in power.
Yes, there is.
We have changed your planet forever. Fundamentally. Profoundly. Your existence will never be the same.
And this doesn’t frighten you? The responsibility you claim over Earth? Over life on Earth? Over me?
No. Why should it? It is our reason.
It is why we are here.
And you do not see yourself as being alone?
No. Not alone. You have isolated me in this cell but I am a part of others.
Andar was silent again.
Please explain, “a part of others.”
My family. My friends. My nonhuman relations. The land. The air, water. The sun and moon. The stars. We are all a part of one another.
So you do not think you are alone?
I am not alone.
Of course I was lying about how I was feeling. But I liked that Andar was confused. It was not used to being confused. I thought I could trick it into revealing something — anything — that might help me get out of here. Get back to my people.
You are not like the others. The others are afraid of being alone. Deeply afraid. You are not like them. You are special.
Yes. You are not afraid.
I do not want the Earth destroyed and abandoned. Humans or nonhumans. I am afraid you are going to do here what you have done to others over many galaxies.
How does that make you feel?
What is this question?
Do you have any feelings about what I want? Or don’t want?
No. No I do not. Which is not to say I do not have feelings. My feelings are the reason.
Your reason for why you are here?
Yes. For why we are here.
You do not particularly care about the beings whose worlds you use up and destroy?
Destroy? We do not destroy. We offer something better than mere existence.
And what is that? What do you offer?
To be a part of something bigger. Meaningful.
But they — we — are already a part of something meaningful. Something you are intent on destroying. There’s no meaning in that.
Andar became agitated. Angered. Its appendages fluttered. It covered its face.
You were given a choice.
It was no choice.
Then you prefer ending?
I prefer ending.
Andar rose and moved towards the wall where it had entered. It turned around.
You would end everyone for yourself?
Wait. What do you mean I have a choice? You mean my choice is for everyone?
Yes. You make the choice for humans. For the Earth.
What is the choice?
Be absorbed, improve yourselves, or end. Die, as you call it.
And if I say end, it is for everyone?
Yes. Because you are not afraid, you must decide.
I cannot decide for everyone. I will not.
Then you will end. Humans will end.
I refuse the choice.
I refuse it.
Andar hovered above me. It meant to intimidate me. It did. And then it left as quickly as I had ever seen it move.
They left me alone for some time. I tried to wonder as to why but since I had no idea I didn’t want to try too deliberately to figure it out. I didn’t want to become too predisposed to a reason, to cloud my perceptions or responses.
Then one morning I woke to find a Keplarian sitting at the table. There was a second chair and a large meal on the table.
I knew it was a Keplarian from the story Andar had given me in our first meeting. If I didn’t know any better I’d say the Keplar were human, the primary difference being that they were freakishly tall — I would say at least 10 feet — and their hair, skin, and eyes were the same color of dark maple. In shadow it gave them an almost even appearance with features that were hard to distinguish. The one waiting for me now wore a device around its neck and one of its legs. The one at its neck functioned as a translator. It would speak in its language and a couple seconds later the translator would speak in English. I didn’t know what the device at its leg was for.
I am Cerria, I said as I sat up and joined it at the table.
I am K3329. The Andar are concerned you are not eating.
I’m not? I hadn’t noticed. I haven’t been hungry.
You are to eat.
I knew without asking that I wasn’t being given a choice so I began nibbling on the food it had brought.
I am here to speak with you about your choice.
I refuse that choice, I said as I took another bite.
I am here to make another… To provide you with another choice.
You are alone. I will be yours.
Mine? I stopped eating.
Like my slave?
No. Not a slave. Your new a part of others.
I don’t understand.
You said you were not alone. But the world you were a part of will be gone soon. Sooner than the Andar had planned. It was already much destroyed. Humans had already much destroyed it. The Andar would prefer not to end you. They would prefer you absorb.
What are the Andar doing to the Earth?
That question is not for now. The question for now is your choice. To be Andar or end. If you are Andar, I will be yours. We will be a part of each other.
I don’t understand.
We are compatible. We are able to procreate.
You mean you would be my mate?
Yes. Your mate. You have never procreated. I have never procreated. It would be good for the Andar if we procreated. And it would give you others.
The Andar have made many assumptions.
Humans want mates.
Some humans want mates. Some want to procreate. But they want love more. Love and mates and children are not the same thing. Not always, anyway.
You want love but not a mate? Not to procreate?
That is not the kind of others I need to have meaning in my life. That is not the kind of others I have in my life that gives me meaning.
I would be yours. I would love you.
The Andar cannot give you to me. They cannot force you to love me or me to love you or us to procreate.
You do not need to get angry. It would be better if you did not get angry. It is a choice. It is my choice.
Not if they are making you do it.
You do not understand. You do not understand the Andar.
K3329 stood abruptly and turned away.
Wait. Please. I am confused. Are there other humans onboard. I’m assuming this is an Andar spaceship? The other choice I was given was for all humans. Now only for me?
K3329 ignored me and continued moving away. The device on its leg illuminated a dirty green. It placed its hand on the wall. For a quick moment it looked as though the fluorescent green transferred between its hand and the wall. A door appeared and it exited.
It occurred to me that my left arm might work the same way. I approached the wall and put my hand against it and waited. Soon the strange green coloring flickered in my hand and on the wall and a door opened. I walked through it.
I found myself in a long, narrow hall. K3329 was nowhere I could see. So I ran and ran and ran. There was no end to it. This hallway had no end.
After what felt like hours but was probably much less so, I collapsed in exhaustion. I wondered if I could find others in cells along the hall but just as quickly worried that I would open the wall into a command center or security station. I decided not to risk it and figure out where I was before attempting to find others.
I almost got away. I barely survived the surgery that followed. They amputated my left arm and returned me to my cell to recover. When I was able to sit up and take food, Andar came and informed me that the choice given to me was no longer available. I asked which one. It said I would be absorbed. I would cooperate. It left before I could reply or ask anymore questions.
I was left alone for quite some time. No doubt a punishment for my attempted, and obviously futile, escape.
When I was mostly recovered from the amputation, and had found enough energy to begin exercising again, K3329 returned with another Keplarian, attached a device to my neck and leg, and escorted me out of the cell and through a maze of halls and stairwells and elevators.
I tried to make chit chat with K3329 but it was having none of it. It and its companion all but ignored me unless I turned or looked in the wrong direction. But then stopping abruptly K3329 informed me that it was a General and I was to serve as one of its Lieutenants. I was assigned to Unit E1 as Serial Number 001. I would be referred to as E1‑001. I and my unit were to be trained in servicing the processing plant. The plant was located on a cargo ship docked in a bay on the other side of the wall where we stood. The plant was where raw materials from the planets the Andar stripped were processed into usable sources of power. It was considered dangerous work. The plant was not especially efficient and wasted most of the materials it procured during processing. Not many survived exposure to the waste. Those who did were often killed during one of the frequent breakdowns and repairs of the equipment.
So, humans are expendable after all? I asked K3329 rhetorically.
Humans are expendable, it answered.
K3329’s indifference was stifling. It raised its hand to the wall and we walked through. There were probably a 100 or so other humans in the bay. It took everything in me not to shout or scream or otherwise respond. I looked in vain for a familiar face but not all of us were from the same continent or spoke the same language. Still, all I could see in them was the potential for alliance and revolt. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. But too quickly it was apparent that all they could see in me was a traitor, one who was serving the Andar and to whom they would report as a supervisor. I was mortified.
I asked K3329 what would happen if I refused the assignment.
You will be forced to end these others before you are ended.
There is no choice but the one you create for yourself. And so I took the data board with information about my crew and checked them off as they checked in and boarded the cargo ship, and waited.