Four Allarchians locomoted slowly across the neighboring backyard, dragging a tarp between them. I watched them through the biggest crack in the fence. A naked man lay in the center of their tarp, on his back and unconscious. The lines of his ribs were clear beneath his old scars and soldier’s tattoos, and I guessed that he had been holding out alone somehow all this time.
Poor bastard. He wasn’t going to like this.
The Allarchians kept at it. They’re not so good at dragging things, since they don’t have skeletons. Landsquids, we had called them, when they’d been nothing but one of the curious alien creatures seen from a distance, watching at the edges of our freshly-established colony. How funny, we had said, as we dug wells and planted crops. Not so funny when they showed up one day with technology in their tentacles, ready to dismantle everything.
The man on the tarp suddenly flailed. The Allarchians looked at each other. Months I’ve been living in my owner’s yard, and I still don’t know how they communicate. Ultra-high frequency sound? Pheromones? Telepathy? "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," the soldier moaned. "What is this? Where am I?"
The Allarchians released the tarp and backed away. One of them locomoted to the end of the yard, near the back fence, where a human-house was waiting. The man’s one-room cottage was smaller than mine. "Where the hell are my clothes?" he asked, as he rolled off the tarp. He tried to stand but couldn’t. "Wait. Is this–?"
The Allarchian by the human-house placed a tentacle on the swinging door and used his (her? its?) suckers to pull it open. I couldn’t see the inside from where I stood, but I knew what the cottage would contain: a nest of soft cloth on the floor, for sleeping, and all kinds of miscellaneous junk stolen from the colony, dumped in without system or sense. "No!" the soldier shouted, groggily. He tried to stand again and fell to the yard’s carpet of moss. "No! Whatever you want with me, you slimy bastards–"
"They won’t hurt you," I called, from behind the crack.
He jumped. It was enough to make him fall over. "Who are you?"
"I’m David. Your neighbor." I smiled. "Nice to meet you."
"My neighbor?" The soldier got to his hands and feet, turning in a circle like a dog, watching the Allarchians watching him. "What the hell is this?"
"That’s your yard," I said. "The cottage there is your human-house, for sleeping in. They’ll feed you four times a day, which takes some getting used to, but with the longer days here it works out."
The soldier stared at me. His attention gave me a flutter of pleasure. "Actually, I’m really glad you’re here," I said. "The guy on the other side of me owns three humans, and I see them chatting together, but we don’t really click and I don’t talk to them much. And it’s not like the Allarchians can speak English. Or talk at all, probably."
The soldier kept staring. "So we’re slaves."
I turned around and gestured at the back of my neck. "I don’t know if you can see this through the crack, but–"
"Jesus, is that a brand?"
Behind me, the moss rustled with the locomoting of tentacles. My owner. When she reached me, she curled a pair of green-spotted tentacles around my waist and placed an eye against another fence crack.
"Oh God," said the soldier. Only now did he sound afraid.
"They don’t make us do anything," I assured him. "They just like to watch. That’s why the toilet and shower pipe are out in the open, there, on the other side of your yard. They especially like to watch us shower. And the water is warm, so that’s nice."
He put a hand to his mouth.
"They do let you wear clothes otherwise," I went on. "You’ll probably find some in your human-house, though they won’t fit well. The Allarchians don’t really understand clothing."
A silence fell between us. The three Allarchians by the tarp in the soldier’s yard swiveled on their tentacles and looked at my owner. She looked back at them.
"You like it." The soldier spoke in a whisper.
"We’re not being enslaved or murdered or eaten," I pointed out. "It could be a lot worse."
"You like it." He tried again to stand, and this time, succeeded. "Jesus. What have they done to you?"
My pleasant mood began to falter. "Nothing. Look–it’s really not so bad. They take artifacts from the colony and give them to us, and eventually you’ll probably get a pocketmedia for some entertainment. I even got some of the printed books. Last week she gave me a ball and a set of jacks. You find diversions."
"I don’t want diversions." His incredulity was turning into panic. "I want to get out of here!"
But instead of listening, he lunged for the nearest Allarchian to attack. Its skin turned iridescent blue before it brought up its tentacles. You might as well try to wrestle pythons as physically attack an Allarchian, but I gave the soldier credit for trying.
Thirty seconds later, he was wrapped in its arms and screaming. "Let me out! Let me out!"
A second Allarchian withdrew a short, white tube from a small item bag it carried, and tapped the soldier on the neck with it. He went limp and quiet. The Allarchians rolled him back onto the tarp and finished dragging him into his human-house.
My owner turned and looked at me. I looked back at her. We still had no means of communicating, but I’d like to think that with eye contact, we could still exchange that most simple of social-creature messages: We are sharing this moment.
I spent as much time watching Soldier-Boy in the next few weeks as his new owners did. First he spent several days in a cycle of hiding, pouncing, and being put into unconsciousness. Four times a day, his caring owners cautiously entered the yard and set out food; four times a day, the soldier would try to attack them somehow. He eventually figured out that long-range weapons were better for this. In turn, the Allarchians took away everything in his human-house except clothing, so he’d have nothing to throw at them. When he found that they’d taken all his objects, he took to throwing rocks. Then the Allarchians quit feeding him altogether for a while. By the look of him, he didn’t have much fat to burn, and I figured this would calm him down pretty quick. It didn’t. It just made him come to me.
"Give me something," he begged in a whisper, through the big crack in the fence. "Please. For the love of God. Anything. Do you have a spare piece of fruit? A handful of nuts? My stomach’s eating itself."
"Quit throwing rocks at your handlers, then," I said. "You’ll get all the food you want."
I wanted the soldier to like me. Really. I’d been in that yard for 5 months, by my reckoning, with nobody to answer back, and even a paranoid soldier neighbor was much better company than no company at all. But he had to learn that a battle with the Allarchians was one he couldn’t win. Otherwise, how could he ever be happy like this?
He finally relented to taking the food they left him, but only by picking up the tray and carrying it back into his human-house, to eat in privacy. Soon he switched to a nocturnal schedule, so he could shower and shit unobserved, too.
"Why are you doing this?" I’d call through the crack in the fence, on nights I couldn’t sleep. "Come on. Aren’t you at least a little curious about them?"
"No," he’d snarl. "I know enough."
I told him about my owner, hoping that he’d be a little more receptive if he knew what one of them was actually like. I guessed she was female, I said, though I really had no way of knowing. She lived alone, unlike most other Allarchians. I was her only human. I was not allowed in the house, but she often came outside to watch me or keep me company. She loved being in my human-house with me and watching me interact with objects. Her tentacles were muscular and supple, and pet me very gently.
"She pets me."
The soldier stepped back from the fence in horror. On my side of the crack, the moss was worn down from my habitual observation, but on his side, it still grew thick and springy. "You let those things touch you?"
"I let dogs and cats touch me."
"But that’s not–these aren’t–" His face twisted in anger and discomfort. "Look, you might enjoy being manhandled like some octopus baby, but I don’t want those slimy arms anywhere near me."
"They aren’t slimy. They’re smooth and dry, like snakeskin. And if she wanted to hurt me, she would’ve done it long ago. I’m telling you, they like us."
He shook his head. "We aren’t people to them. Doesn’t that matter to you?"
"Well, sure it does. But–"
"And doesn’t freedom matter to you?"
I paused. I knew what I was supposed to say, but I didn’t know that I believed it. What’s freedom? As far as I could tell, freedom meant what had happened to us when our generations-old ship, and everything we’d ever known, had finally landed. It meant I could open the hatches and walk on natural ground, and sure, I got to walk anywhere I wanted–and planets go on for miles and miles (and thousands more)–but freedom also meant I had to burn vegetation, and clear the ground, and plow it, and plant it, and dig irrigation ditches, while everybody around me had to do the same thing or something similar. Freedom meant that I could look up at the open sky for five minutes and marvel, while I had to spend the rest of my waking hours concentrating on taming the dirt. Is that really being free, or just trapped in a new way? And if there’s no such thing as freedom, what does it matter how my life is spent, as long as I’m decently happy?
"Never mind," the soldier said, turning his back on me and stalking to his cottage. "I think I know your answer."
The next day the soldier’s owners hosted a gathering. Scores of Allarchians arrived at the house next door, parking their soundless vehicles up and down what I could see of the adjacent street. The high windows of the house soon filled up with fanned-out, hanging clusters of Allarchians, like starfish clinging to the sides of fish tanks. I watched the suckers of strangers pulse, the occasional unpeeling of a guest, expressionless faces staring round at each other. Rainbows of color and pattern pulsed over skin. A few of them moved out into the backyard. "Hi guys!" I shouted, thought I knew by now they never responded to speech.
A tentacle touched my hand. I looked over at my owner, who locomoted a few feet away from me, then turned and looked back. She did this several times. This is their only action whose meaning I’ve been able to figure out–"follow".
To my great surprise, she led me through the gate to the side yard, and from there, to the road. I stopped several times to look around me and stare, overwhelmed by the newness of the same houses and giant ferns seen from a different angle. Slowly, she coaxed me into my neighbor’s yard. Then she looked at me and went inside the house.
I stood there uncertainly. What did she want me to do here?
The swinging door to the human-house behind me made a sound. I turned. Soldier-Boy was standing in the doorway, groggy with sleep, blinking and suspicious. He eyed the crowded house behind me. Instinctively, I turned to look, and saw that we had gotten a number of Allarchians’ attention. "What’s this now?" said the soldier.
"I don’t know," I confessed. "Maybe this is… um… a play date?"
He snorted. "If ever I were desperate enough to play with you, it would not be in front of all these… all these whatever."
"We call this planet Allarch, right?"
He mumbled something I didn’t catch, then said, "David, right?"
Hearing my name gave me a flutter of pleasure. "Yeah."
"I’m Ramesh. Come inside."
I entered his human-house. They still hadn’t given Ramesh anything but clothes, so the space was uncomfortably barren. The nest looked tidy, though. "I don’t know how long we have, so let’s make this quick. Do they ever let you visit anyone else like this?"
"No. This is the first time she’s even let me out of the yard."
Ramesh swore. "I was hoping otherwise. We could’ve used your greater freedom to organize."
"We? Oh. Other humans."
"Yes, other humans." He scowled at me. "You got people living on the other side of you?"
"Yes. Three Allarchians, three humans."
"Good. I got two on my other side. You talk with them at all?"
"Are they interested in organizing?"
I considered. "They used to talk about it. Now, not so much. I don’t really know anymore."
"Would you give them messages from me?"
"God damn it!" said Ramesh, kicking a discarded sweater. It was tiny, a sweater for a child. "What’s wrong with everyone? Is it the food? Something in the water? Because the people on the other side of me don’t give a damn either. This whole damn neighborhood is crawling with us, and what do we do? Sit in our little clubhouses and wait for some daily tentacle circle-jerk?"
I made a face. "I don’t know what the people on the other side of you do with their owners, but–"
"A figure of speech, David." He kicked a lone shoe, a magnetic boot that was made obsolete when our ship touched down. "Though for all I know, in some houses that’s exactly what happens."
"Ramesh…" I didn’t know what to say, other than his name. "Ramesh…"
"We had a group of us up there in the hills," Ramesh said. "Did I tell you that? Maybe two or three dozen of us, we got away. Not a lot, but enough to keep the species alive. I was dumb. Went after some game too close to the old colony site. Got nabbed by some tentacled archeologist, or I don’t even know. Look–I have to get back. Don’t you get it? With so few people left, they’re depending on me."
I hadn’t known there were others. Now I really didn’t know what to say.
"You have stuff in your cottage, right? Is there anything there you can use as a weapon?"
I stuck my tongue into a cheek. When I first moved into my human-house, I found, among the many random items, a bullet gun. My owner obviously didn’t know what it was–she wouldn’t have let me have it otherwise–but for two weeks I’d kept it hidden anyway, in my nest near my head, listening to my heart pound in the darkness and imagining the cold weight of the weapon in my palms. But I could never do it, and I knew it. I couldn’t even bring myself to hunt game, when we’d first touched down. "I’m not a soldier," I said. "I can’t hurt anyone. Even if they might deserve it. Which the Allarchians don’t."
Ramesh stared at me for a long time, his hands clenched at his sides. Then his face contorted–more like in pain than in anger–and he shoved me.
I stumbled back, surprised, falling into the door and pushing it open. Ramesh stomped after me into the yard, his eyes a pair of rising flames. "Oh you can’t, can you?" He pushed me again, harder. "Can’t hurt anyone no matter what, can you?"
"Ramesh–Jesus, calm down. If you’d just listen to me for a second–"
"If you’d listen to me," Ramesh shouted, "you’d hear that not all of us want to die in chains, your treacherous piece of shit!"
Then he punched me.
I fell to the moss, feeling shocked. Then strangely betrayed. For a moment my body felt nothing; then the agony in my face rose to a roiling height, and I found it hard to breathe.
"Get up!" Ramesh shouted, because I was a much easier target than an Allarchian.
I didn’t. I scuttled backward over the moss, ripping up pieces of it in my haste, expecting the Allarchians to locomote out of the house and pull him away from me. But they didn’t. They just came to the windows and stared, watching two unfathomable aliens go at their unfathomable way of interaction.
Ramesh got down on the ground with me, to hit me again. I twisted away, but he still got me in the shoulder, and the impact made me fall flat on my back. He moved over me. I rolled onto my stomach, to see if any Allarchians were approaching now, but they just stood and stared, skins rippling with all those colors.
The soldier grabbed my neck.
My world dimmed into a storm of purples and reds. I couldn’t breathe. Ramesh shouted in my ear, "You think I’m anything like you? Something to be tamed? Something that doesn’t care how he lives and dies?"
The Allarchians finally came outside. But not to intervene–merely to get a closer look. I reached out to them, mouthing words, as Ramesh’s speech muddled to a roar and the world turned black. But the nearness of the Allarchians must have unnerved my captor, because Ramesh finally let go, and I was left gasping atop the moss.
Behind me, the human-house door squealed on its hinges and wobbled shut.
The Allarchians watched me. I only noticed them as a ring of rippling color. I sucked in air, unable to get enough, and when I finally did; the pain in my face came back with a vengeance.
I wanted to cry. I didn’t.
The Allarchians wandered back inside. My owner and one of Ramesh’s owners remained, staring at me and each other for a long time, occasionally touching me with a probing tentacle. My owner touched my face where Ramesh had hit, much too hard, and I yelped and rolled away.
Her skin rippled yellow and silver. She locomoted a few steps up the side yard and turned to look back me. Time to go home.
Back in my human-house, I used a medikit I’d been given to examine myself. Bruised, but nothing broken. My owner examined me too, but not in the way of a doctor or veterinarian. Just the usual aimless, curious way. I might think she loved me, as all Allarchians loved their humans, but no matter what she felt, she could not understand what I needed.
That night, my palms sweating, I withdrew the bullet gun from under a pile of yarn. Then I set it by my nest.
Ramesh switched to a diurnal sleep cycle, but it wasn’t because he’d broken. It was so he could play new games. He clogged the toilet; let the water in the shower pipe run, ripped up the yard’s moss, pissed on the Allarchians’ house–anything he could think of to inconvenience them. I kept watching him, but only when I thought he wasn’t looking. I still wanted Ramesh to like me, but I was afraid to say anything. Even apologize.
About a week later, my owner led me to his yard again. I stopped in front of his side gate and refused to enter. She tried to drag me with a couple of tentacles, but I wouldn’t budge, so Ramesh’s owners came out to help. What must they think of me, standing by the fence and staring at Ramesh all day? They obviously knew that humans were social creatures. And they could tell that I was lonely.
"He wants to kill me," I yelled, but I knew they couldn’t understand, because they picked me up and carried me inside.
I spent a terrifying hour huddled near the back door of the main house, watching Ramesh’s human-house for any sign of activity. Ramesh’s door did not open.
My owner finally led me home without incident, but she made me return the next day. And the next. And so on.
During the seventh day’s visit, Ramesh finally came out of his human-house. I had gotten lazy about watching it, and was near his shower-pipe, passing my hand under the tiniest trickle I could coax the valve to make. Two of Ramesh’s Allarchians watched me from a window. "Hey."
I started. Ramesh stood in his doorway, his expression stony. "This wasn’t my idea," I said.
"I know. I see them drag you."
Now Ramesh watched me, and I found his gaze much more unnerving than the Allarchians’. Too self-conscious to continue playing, I turned off the water, dried my hand on my (too small, unbuttoned, ill-fitting) pants, and said, "I’ll get out of your way."
Ramesh held up a hand. "Wait. I’m sorry about the other day."
Ramesh put his hands in the pockets of his (too big, held up with a shoelace belt, ill-fitting) pants, and said, "If I can’t kill any of them, I swear to God I’m going to kill myself. I can’t live like this. Look–I’m a reasonable guy. I don’t usually go around beating people up. Even if they’re assholes and cowards. This place is making me insane."
I thought about saying, "Apparently," but just said, "Uh-huh."
"I really am sorry."
I nodded. "It was kind of funny–" I started to say, then stopped.
"Just…" I felt myself blushing. I felt strangely guilty for saying this, but the Allarchians couldn’t hear me, so what did it matter? "It was kind of funny. In a way. That they didn’t stop you from hitting me. I mean… if they value us."
Ramesh smirked, but it was a sad expression. "Does it make you change your mind about them?"
I didn’t answer.
My owner came outside, her skin a steady purple, locomoting in a stop-start pattern toward home. I followed her, feeling Ramesh’s eyes on my back along the way.
The next time my owner came to my human-house to lead me next door, I picked a random item from my cottage (in this case, a can of lime-flavored, carbonated sugar water) and carried it outside. I thought she might stop me from bringing something over to Ramesh’s, but she appeared not to care, because she led me to the adjacent yard without reacting.
"I brought you something," I said to Ramesh, when he poked his head out of his human-house. "Here."
Ramesh took it. "Pop? Only kids drink this stuff."
I shrugged. "Or shake it up and spray it around if you get bored. I don’t care."
Ramesh frowned and set the can by his nest. "Thanks."
The next time I came over, I brought a pencil. "What am I supposed to use this for?" Ramesh asked. "Scrawling escape plans on the wall?"
"Good idea," I said, though really, I didn’t give a shit.
Then I brought him a digital wristwatch, wholly useless because it wasn’t designed for anything but ship’s time, in which a day had 24 hours. Next came a bag of marbles. Then a paintbrush. "Are you just unloading your crap on me?" Ramesh asked.
"I’m showing the Allarchians that you can have objects and behave," I said. "They’ll start giving you things themselves, and you can be a little more comfortable."
Ramesh pressed his lips together and shook his head. "You really think you’re helping me, don’t you?"
"But I am helping you. Aren’t I?"
Ramesh sighed. "I don’t know, David. Maybe if I can rip up some clothes to make a slingshot and blind one of those tentacled bastards with a marble, then yes, you’d be helping me."
I thought of the bullet gun. I didn’t mention it.
Ramesh’s human-house began to fill with objects, things I’d taken him and eventually, things his owners began to offer. I hoped that actual amity with his handlers wasn’t far behind, but Ramesh still became hostile when one of them entered the yard. I told Ramesh that I worried that his owners would get fed up and give him away–they still hadn’t put a brand on him–but Ramesh had only laughed and said he hoped so, because that meant an opportunity to escape. "I’ve already explored the fence to death," he said, "and escape that way isn’t an option. It looks rickety, but you can’t break these boards with a fist or a foot, and in my yard anyway they planted the things deep. If I got led out of my yard every day, like you…" Ramesh glared at me in envious silence, but left the ending unsaid.
"If you could escape without killing anyone," I said, "would you do it?"
Ramesh snorted. "If it would mean I’d get away, then absolutely. How stupid do you think I am? Not all soldiers are murderous redneck idiots, you know."
"I didn’t say that."
"You thought it."
"That’s fine," said Ramesh. "I always thought you were a gutless coward, so I guess we’re even."
"What if I have…"
"What if I have something you could… you know… use."
"Use to what?" said Ramesh. "Dig my way out? Or something I could use for a grappling hook to get over the boards?"
Why had I said anything? "It’s a dumb idea. Forget it."
Ramesh’s voice turned soft. "Do you have a circular saw? Something like that?"
I imagined bloody, shot-off tentacles writhing on the lush moss of the yard, and I couldn’t help but shudder. I didn’t want to think about these things, or about Ramesh leaving, and me going back to standing at the biggest crack in the other side of the fence, watching those three humans laugh and talk together without me. "No. It’s nothing like that. And it wouldn’t work anyway, so never mind."
Ramesh scrutinized me. His face was intense, still, as if he were stalking prey. "Tell me a little more about it," he said.
"Forget it. Really. It’s stupid."
"No no. Let’s hear your idea."
"I shouldn’t’ve brought it up."
"You have it in your house, right?"
"I said, it would never work."
"Do you not know what it is? Is that it?" Ramesh’s eyes gleamed. "Some of the more advanced weapons are hard to figure out. You should bring it over."
"No I shouldn’t."
"If they’ve let you have it this long, then they don’t know what it is. David." Hearing him say my name still gave me that disorienting ripple of pleasure, and I felt my resolve weakening. "Come on. Next time."
"I don’t know."
"Sure you do. Won’t you be glad to be rid of it? You mustn’t like looking at it. Knowing it’s there. You said you could never hurt anybody, right? You probably don’t like that kind of thing lying around your house, right?"
I didn’t trust myself to answer. I just shrugged.
When my owner came to lead me away that day, Ramesh stood in the door of his human-house, smiling and watching me go.
Ramesh began to hang out in his yard. But not casually, to let his owners watch him eat or relax or play with dead fern fronds. Ramesh only let his owners see him doing one thing: standing by the big crack in the fence, looking at me.
I knew why. And it was terrifying.
Ramesh didn’t talk to me often, on his watch. When he did, it was with an eager, fierce heat that frightened me far more than his old outburst of violence had. "Don’t worry. I’ll look at that thing you got in your house. I’ll figure it out for you. I’ll be real discreet."
"If you come over," I said. "If they let you over."
I wanted to believe he was wrong. But I didn’t.
"Shouldn’t you just run away?" I asked. "If you were let out of your yard? I thought you said you wouldn’t blow a chance if you got it."
"I wouldn’t." His grin widened. "I’ll run on the return trip to my yard. Once I’ve got it with me."
Clearly, before Ramesh’s owners led him over, I’d have to hide what he’d be looking for–even though I had nothing to convincingly offer in its place, and even though it would not go well if I gave Ramesh nothing at all. But I couldn’t think of a fool-proof hiding place for the weapon.
And the only warning I got was a loud whoop.
I’d been sitting in my yard, finishing lunch. At the sound of Ramesh’s ululation, I looked over at the fence and saw motion and color rippling beyond the cracks. Ramesh. Being led from the yard.
I abandoned the tray and ran into my human-house, panic crippling my reasoning. No time to think. I grabbed a random pile of womens’ panties and tossed them over the bullet gun, hoping that old taboos and a conservative soldier’s values could save me. What if I lied and said I liked to wear the things? Would he be too disgusted to look at them too closely?
My door swung open.
Ramesh entered, grinning. "David. How’ve you been."
"You’re out of breath." He dropped the grin. "Have they been doing anything to you?"
"No. I was just…"
Ramesh followed my involuntary gaze. He smirked at the panties. "Got yourself a little collection? And here I’d been thinking all this time you were boring." Ramesh came closer. "Anything good?"
I stepped in his way. "I’m very embarrassed about it," I sputtered. "And I can’t help it. I mean the Allarchians give them to me, along with all the other random stuff I can’t use. I mean I haven’t traded them with my neighbors yet. Don’t–"
He pushed past me and kicked them apart with a booted foot. The panties scattered like wet leaves, and the black, ugly bullet gun skid over the floor toward the door.
It stopped. Ramesh and I looked at each other.
We both lunged for the weapon. I hit Ramesh and he hit me, and in a tangle of fists and legs we rammed into the gun and out the door. It had rained that morning, and the moss was damp. Cold soaked the back of my thin shirt as Ramesh rolled on top of me. I grabbed at the bullet gun and got a handful of mud. Ramesh grabbed my hand. I somehow got my other elbow into his throat and pushed him off, and when he rolled away, I reached again. My hand closed over the weapon’s grip, and I realized I had no idea what to do next. Did it have a safety? Was it loaded? Wasn’t I supposed to do something with the hammer on the back?
"David." Ramesh’s voice was sweet. He rolled into a sitting-up position, palms raised and fingers spread. Mud was slashed across his neck, like his throat had been cut and filth had poured out instead of blood. "Take it easy."
"I’m not going anywhere. I’m sitting right here." He was even smiling. "I know you’re jumpy. We’re all jumpy. Is that what you have?"
"It’s mine." My fingers found a little button on the side of the bullet gun. I pushed it. Nothing happened, but Ramesh’s smile faltered. "I’m not giving it to you."
"Is that your insurance policy against the Allarchians? In case they do something you don’t like?"
"I’m not giving it to you!" My hands shook, but I wouldn’t put them down. I couldn’t. If I did, he’d pounce and take it, and he’d be mad, mad, mad at me for withholding it all this time. And then–?
"I didn’t say you were," said Ramesh. "I’m gonna stand up now. Okay?"
I didn’t answer. Ramesh stood up. He took a step toward me, slowly, the door to my side-yard at his back. "I’m coming a little bit closer, okay? My hands are still up. Listen, David. Just take a deep breath. I didn’t mean to scare you. If this is the only weapon you got, and you want to keep it, I can’t blame you. You don’t have to give it up, even. Why, you can come with me, if you want, and be in charge of it the whole way. The new colony is only a few days from here. A week, at most. And we managed to salvage a lot. And since we’re rebuilding the species, you’ll get all the sex you can handle."
"Stop walking," I said, but it came out more like a croak. Wasn’t I supposed to press the hammer? I couldn’t press it, but I could pull it back.
Ramesh’s smile faltered again. He slowed down, but he didn’t stop moving. "Okay, David. Deep breath now. Breathe with me. Ready?"
I found myself doing it. I breathed with him. "…and out," said Ramesh, on the exhale. I exhaled. "Okay. One more time. Breathe in…"
Movement caught my eye. My owner, and one of Ramesh’s, standing in the windows and watching us. Doing nothing. Caring? Wondering? Waiting? Who knew. I could never know, and they could never tell me.
"…and out," said Ramesh. He was near me now. Six feet and closing. Voice getting softer. "Feel any better?"
I straightened my arms, closed my eyes, and squeezed the trigger.
It was much louder than I’d expected. Like a bomb in my hands. The bullet gun kicked back at me, wheeling to the side like an animal trying to break away. I squeezed instinctively, in panic, and it fired and kicked again. I kept my eyes closed. I squeezed again, and again, until the bullets ran out and it died, a hot dead weight in my hands that would only make a flat click-click.
Then I dropped it onto the moss.
I opened my eyes. Ramesh was flat on the ground on his stomach, arms folded over his head. Beyond him, the supposedly unbreakable boards of the fence around the side-yard gate had shattered like glass.
Ramesh’s arms unfolded. He dared to raise his head.
Inside the house, the Allarchians continued to stare at us, their skins rippling with browns.
"There," I sputtered. I couldn’t raise my arms to point. I had trouble staying upright at all, in fact, so I just pointed with my chin. "There’s your chance. I don’t think the Allarchians heard a thing, and they can’t see the whole yard from here. It’ll take them an hour to realize the fence is broken and you’ve gone."
Ramesh got to feet. He stared at the gun, silent and muddy on the moss.
Then he raised his eyes to mine, his expression grave, and nodded once.
Ramesh turned and ran.
I stared after him. He rounded a corner and tore down the empty street. I could feel the Allarchians in the window still staring at me, and was dimly aware of their tentacles drifting up the glass, the way a child puts a hand against a portal window when peering out. As long as I acted calm, they wouldn’t know something was amiss.
I turned and went inside my human-house, leaving the empty weapon in the mud.
When they realized the fence was broken, there was much panic. That is, I suppose it was panic. Several Allarchians came by, looking at each other and at the fence. They touched the fragments of it. Many Allarchians came to look at me, poking their heads inside my house, then staring at each other. At one point my door became impossible to open, and I concluded that my owner must’ve locked it. This made no sense to me. I could have run away, but I hadn’t. Didn’t she see that?
The lockdown wasn’t lifted until later that night, well past dinner. I thought I’d wind up spending the night hungry until my door suddenly swung open. My owner stood in the doorway, skin rippling red and purple, holding a well-loaded dinner tray.
Beyond her, glaring construction lights stood around the broken fence, which had been temporarily patched with something like barbed wire. The brightly-lit yard was empty, and the evening breeze was balmy and sweet. She locomoted inside, the door swinging shut behind her, and set the tray beside the nest. Then she looked at me.
I knew what she wanted. I sat and ate, gratefully, while she lowered herself beside me and wrapped me in warm, supple tentacles. She stroked my back and hair. The tip of one tentacle touched my brand, hesitating, then gently stroked the scarred flesh.
"Of course I didn’t run," I said. "You were scared, weren’t you?"