I was resigned to break it off with Elius even though everything about it was going to be difficult. Elius was egotistical and arrogant and it was going to take work to convince them that it was over and time for me to go home. Ignoring my concerns and experiences, Elius would use my situation against me. I would have to apply for a transfer, wait for approval, and arrange for transportation back to Earth. None of this would go smoothly or quickly. I would have to make arrangements to stay in the worker’s quarters. Why not just stay with Elius? And then reentry would require a six month quarantine on the medical station in Earth’s orbit, a host of painful vaccinations, and a protracted period of reacclimation to Earth’s beleaguered climate. Why not just work things out with Elius? I would have to admit at some point that I had gotten used to not breathing in war and pollution every day. True enough. But still not enough to keep me with Elius. “You’re missing the point,” I would say. “I can’t be with you.”
So I waited at the restaurant of their choosing for a meal I had hoped would be one of the last we had together. I knew there would have to be others. Elius would make sure of it. At least the restaurant was beautiful. It was top and forward of the Athar station orbiting Mercury. Its wall-length windows were filtered, refracting a blue-green array of false color to make the planet appear more calm than it was. It was soothing.
After some time in the lobby, the host suspended their rules and sat me alone at our reserved table. From a human viewpoint Athar restaurants — and really, everything about the Athar — were notoriously large to accommodate Athar bodies. I was easily dwarfed. And still waiting alone an hour later. So imagine my surprise when it was not Elius who joined me but another from Athar Security Forces.
“Miss Effie Ketchum?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Elius will not be joining you this evening. Elius is on assignment to Earth. Elius will not be returning to the station for some time.” This Athar spoke in broken English, meaning they were a new recruit, even forgetting to identify themselves as a matter of protocol.
“I see,” I said as casually as I could manage.
“You will come with me. The ASF has questions for you.”
“Have I done something wrong?”
“The ASF has questions for you.”
I didn’t want to go. Humans rarely survived ASF questioning.
Another ASF officer joined us. The table was clearly not meant for the three of us.
“We have reviewed your records,” the newly arrived officer said. “You have not been keeping good records. There are fewer visas than there are service humans on the station. We have a number of questions for you.”
“Of course… We cannot do this tomorrow? When I am at my desk and can review my records with you? There are so many people, I’m not sure I will remember them all in detail without my notes.”
“You will not be going into work. We have taken your records to ASF. We will review them with you. Now.”
I stood. We left.
As we made our way to ASF headquarters, I understood the sweet covering the metallic smells they emitted was for my sake.
The Athar had gangly accordion-like tentacles, from eight to twelve depending on their age, that extended out from the top of their torsos with eyes and smellers at the end. The eyelids were closed most of the time. Only one or two lids opened for communication’s sake but the tentacles often moved closer to your face than was comfortable. It took some getting used to. That and the fact that the Athar communicated verbally and through smell. When they were threatened or threatening all of their eyes opened and omitted a harsh metallic smell I can only compare to coal. Their defenses included potent visual sensors at the end of their unusually long and thick eyelashes. How long into the war before we figured out they could see through walls? And in close combat you would have to sneak up on them if you wanted to survive the venomous spray from one of their mouths on either the side of their head or the razor-sharp claws that extended out from one of their extraordinarily long three limbs.
These two Athar escorting me to ASF headquarters were trying to disguise their intents with flowery sweetness. They didn’t want me to make a scene or make a run for it. Running was not something they were good at, with their awkward, top-heavy bodies and limbs. Even I could outrun them. But where was I going to go? If I managed to get to one of the docking bays, I had no idea how to fly one of their shuttles. I wasn’t a pilot. I would have to stowaway on something headed for Earth and that was risky without quarantine and vaccination. So I stayed in line, quiet. And on we walked until we approached a wide door to a rather large room where I entered to a small light inside and a locked door behind me.
I stayed in the corner or near the door for several days. There was a large metal desk, chair, and seemingly endless stack of visas piled on and around it. Out of stubbornness or defiance I shunned them all.
Then the withdrawals from Elius began with cold sweats. The multiple sensory‑oriented features of Athar bodies made their abilities to pleasure humans quite astonishing. It was why the few of us who became involved with them sexually found it difficult to leave them. Periods of time away from Elius, when they travelled for work, produced withdrawals not dissimilar to coming off opioids. Within a few days I had filled the bucket in the corner with vomit and piss. At least I could hydrate with the water that came out of an odd spigot directly under the muted light. They must have added something to the water because I never experienced the harsher symptoms — hallucinations, fever, coma — of withdrawal that I could have if I were untreated.
When I began to feel better I got myself to the desk. I knew they wanted me to review the records so I finally, maybe inevitably, relented and got to work. I honestly could not find anything wrong within them but I performed the review, reading slowly through each record, and then reading them again to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. It took some time. I had been on the station for seven months and in that time probably five thousand humans had arrived on visa.
When I was done an ASF officer arrived and sat across from me at the table.
“Elius will not be joining you. Elius is on assignment to Earth. Elius will not be returning for some time.”
“I know,” I said, irritated.
“Your records, the visas, are not in order. There are many omissions.” As he spoke another officer came in and put some food next to me on the table and left. I was permitted to eat.
“Omissions?” I asked as I took a spoonful of stew with a bite of bread.
“All of these are wrong.” They moved some of the records around on the table.
“Are you saying I have left information out of the records or that I made mistakes in the records?”
“Do not be difficult. It will not go well for you.”
“I am not being difficult. I am trying to understand your question.”
“We are saying that you have omitted some visas from the record.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “All of the visas are here?”
“We have more service humans than you have visas. We have done a count on the worker’s decks. You call it a census. There are too many service humans. You are not keeping track of them. Why is that?”
“All of the visas that I have received from you, I have recorded. And when the visas expire, I notify the ASF as required. That is my job. I have done my job.”
“There are too many humans here. More than visas.”
“I do not work at the docking terminal to make sure everyone who enters has a visa. I only work with the visas that are given to me.”
“There are too many humans.”
“Are you allowing more than you want to leave Earth?”
“There are too many humans… Are you a member of the Resistance?”
“Did Elius help you omit records?”
“Did Elius help you bring more humans here?”
“I do not understand. I am not a part of any resistance. I don’t even know about any resistance. You, the ASF, assigned me here to work, after the war. So here is where I am. I do my job. I only do my job.”
“Are you a part of the Resistance?”
“No. What Resistance?”
We talked in circles for hours and days. They kept me fed, gave me breaks and privacy to get cleaned up and use the bucket, and never touched me. But they were convinced that I was either lying or stupid or a lunatic and they needed to know which. They wanted me to name everyone I had ever worked with — on the station or on Earth. Everyone who gave me visas to process. So I gave them names. And more names. And more names. As many as I could remember.
“All of these names you have given us are names from your records. We want the others. The ones you are working with. The ones without visas.”
“These are the only ones I know. Every one else I knew on Earth either died in the war or I haven’t seen them in the seven months I have been here. And you know everyone I know here on the station.”
And around and around it went.
Several days or weeks passed. I think they thought the isolation from other humans would break me. But they didn’t know anything about me or perhaps just not enough about human psychology. As a clinically depressed introvert I thrived on isolation and had a number of coping skills at my disposal — disassociation, daydreaming, visualization. Granted not all healthy ones. After some time, at some point in time, I laughed out loud so deeply and long about the absurdity of it all that my stomach and mouth muscles hurt for the rest of the day. It wasn’t that I was immune to being broken, I just thought it was all so ridiculous. “Not today,” I thought. “I will not be broken today.”
Hell, they even brought me shampoo and soap and a change of clothes from my quarters. But that night they also sent in Elius. While I slept Elius entered and laid next to me on the floor. I woke to the familiar smells Elius made when wanting sexual contact. I was repulsed. I moved to the corner, as far away as I could get.
“Why are you here?” I screamed.
“I am here for you. To take you home.”
“I am not going home with you.”
“This was all a misunderstanding. Come home. We will talk about it there.”
“I thought there was some emergency and you were headed back to Earth. I thought you were going to be gone indefinitely.”
“My assignment changed. I am here, now.”
“Can I leave?”
“Yes. We will go home.”
“I am not going home with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not going home with you.”
“It is not safe for you here, without me.”
“It is not safe for me here without you? Am I in trouble? Am I going to disappear some day without warning? Like all of the humans back on Earth who didn’t fall into line?”
“No. Nothing like that. That was war.”
“Then what is it? What is going on?”
“There has been an uprising. On Earth. Coordinated attacks on all seven continents and at three of our four stations in orbit. Many Athar have died. Some humans have died. Why do you smile?”
“I am not smiling.”
“We need to be sure service humans are not… are safe. I need to make sure you are safe.”
“Safe from whom? From you? The Athar? Or, wait. You mean from other humans?”
“Yes. Safe from other humans.”
“So humans are fighting back on Earth and you wondered — billions of miles away, in Mercury’s orbit — if those of us here were a part of what is going on back there?”
“And just how have I been communicating with people back on Earth? You do not permit us to communicate with anyone on Earth, or with each other for that matter, so how have I, we coordinated this?”
“I do not know. I have not been told… You are getting very agitated. You need to calm down.”
“Aren’t you one of the generals, or whatever you call if, in the ASF? Shouldn’t you know why I — your partner, your lover — is locked up and questioned for days on end without charge?”
“What does my rank have to do with anything? We had to be sure. We had to be sure you are safe.”
“I would like to leave. You said I could leave. Can I go?”
“Yes. Let us go home and we will talk about it there.”
“There’s nothing to talk about, Elius. I am done talking about it. And this is not my home. This was never my home.” I stood and cleaned myself up, washing my face at the spigot, braiding my hair into some manageable mess, pulling on my shoes.
“There are more humans here than we gave permission to be here. We need to figure out why.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“I know. We know now. Now, come home with me and everything will be fine.”
“Listen to me. I am not going home with you. I was not going to go home with you last week or whenever it was when we were supposed to have dinner when you never showed up and I was brought here for questioning. I am certainly not going home with you now. I will find a room in the worker’s quarters.”
“You were not going to come home with me, before?”
“I am not in love with you, Elius. We are not a good match. This is not happening any longer between us.”
“I don’t understand. We are the perfect match.”
“No we are not. And I was going to tell you so at dinner that night that I am applying for a transfer. I am going home.”
Elius stood and moved towards me. I moved away.
“We are together.”
“Not anymore. And Service allows me to transfer. I am free to transfer back to Earth?” It suddenly occurred to me that I was not free to go home and I panicked a bit. “I am going to apply for a transfer.”
“We are together. There is a war. You cannot go to Earth.”
“You are not listening. I do not love you anymore. And I am not your slave? I can leave? That is what you Athar promised us, that we are not slaves.”
“You are not slaves.”
“Ok. Then I am leaving. I will collect my things from your quarters later.”
“We are not together.”
“We are not together.”
“You have given me no reason.”
“I do not love you anymore. I do not want to be with you anymore.”
Elius rose quietly and left the room, the door open. I gathered my things and headed out. I was a mess. I was sure he was going to follow me or have me followed or put up a fight. But from what I could tell, I was free to go.
I was a little somber. My mood flat. Or perhaps numb. Breaking up is hard to do. And then, on an impulse, I decided I better retrieve my things from Elius before heading to the worker’s quarters, which were on the far lower decks of the opposite tower just above engineering. Elius, luckily, was not home so I was free to shower and change and pack up my things, including the bomb Rouz had left for me while I was in detention in the cover of a planted pot of wildflowers. They could see through walls but not dirt. It was our signal. The time was near. We would commandeer the station and if we couldn’t we would blow it all to smithereens. As I loosed the bomb from the dirt, wrapped it up in a sweater, and packed it securely in my bag, I sang a little to my ancestors. To all of those who, for generations and generations, were invaded and colonized and raped and murdered in the name of an alien’s better way of life.