by Leon Taylor
I spend so much time planning my life that little is left for living it. I blame my hometown, Hastings, Montana; once the refuge of cattle rustlers, now of more modern thieves. Thanks to Hastings, I am stereotyped, good only for mining coal, from the Alien point of view. True, I am weak, but this does not bother the Aliens. For them, five pounds of coal per day are better than none. They want cheap power to manufacture work-clothes for their empire. Global warming does not trouble them, since they plan to use up the Earth in fifty years anyway, just shy of the 22nd century. So it is a pick and hardhat for me. That or the breeding centers.
But I have other plans. I prize my solitude, and for a living I want to think about words. I relax by memorizing vocabulary lists of Japanese, Chinese, Russian. I love linking in my mind an extravagant sound to a familiar image, like producing a thought-movie. For example, the Russian word strogii—strict, cruel—links to the portrait of a troll awaiting his victims at the bridge. I think of strogii when the Aliens’ nightly newscast, One World Ours, airs on our 40-year-old television, showing the severed heads and choked hearts of human rebels, then the triumphs and mansions of human turncoats. One World Ours is compulsory viewing, has been ever since the Invasion. But during the newscast, I squeeze my eyelids shut tight and focus on the Russian for “all is well,” horrorshow. When the newscaster finally announces the end of the broadcast, I am flooded with gratitude. I could shake its scaly hand.
My parents—college graduates, unusual for Hastings—wanted me to join the Resistance. Humans cannot defeat the Aliens because they don’t understand their language, while the Aliens are fluent in ours. “The Resistance needs a linguist,” my father rasped, “and I have only one child to give.” I did not reply. The Resistance is, or was, a joke. I enrolled in the Aliens’ university for collaborationists, in San Francisco—over, as it turned out, my father’s dead body, the consequence of his broken heart.
The first weeks of classes were heaven unearned (unearned, because I remembered my father). The school in Hastings had taught only how to cut coal at the face of the mountain for twelve hours per day and how to detect a deadly surge in methane. The Aliens’ university, overlooking the iridescent Bay, taught natural science, mathematics, even Bach and Wordsworth—to show that betrayal could be civilized, I guess. And it gave us double servings for dinner, on an Earth kept close to famine.
I am not popular with other humans. I am a country gal with bandy legs and Coke-thick glasses, age 23. Time to marry, I know, I know. More fundamentally, I must choose whether to live among Aliens or humans, whether to inhabit the world of words or the world of kin. I dread my Big Decision. So, even at lunch, I bury my nose in textbooks, the ballonets of my soul.
One Monday noon I sensed a pair of strange eyes boring into the back of my neck. I looked up from my slice of apple pie. An elephantine guard was examining me derisively. The university had a dozen security officers, though God knows what there was to guard against. This one was your textbook Bug-Eyed Monster: Three black and yellow irises, a putrescent mouth, a stomach like a ski slope. My classmates said, to the extent that they said anything to me, that the guards were deportees from the Alien planet. Alien Control had decided that since they were so determined to be useless, they should be useless abroad rather than at home. “I hope I’m not bothering you,” the guard said with an impenetrable accent and a leer. I have not mentioned the hermaphrodite’s gender; depending on the season, it might be neither, either, or both. I went back to my book. But the guard remained there, gurgling on me, raising a canker on my neck, and jangling his ring of keys. Later I learned that as the largest guard, he was the one to lock up at night. Fifteen minutes remained in the lunch hour, but I scampered away as it hooted at me.
On Tuesday, it was back. I couldn’t concentrate, so I left before finishing the kasha. On Wednesday, I picked up my lunch early and headed to the classroom for the next lecture, on the calculus of variations. I figured that the guard wouldn’t think to find me there. I figured wrong. The bully reminded me of One World Ours.
Finally, I resorted to the extreme. The university had a small, white-scrubbed room, called The Sanctuary, that was off-limits to Aliens. Students went there sometimes, for a prayer or a nighttime rendezvous. During the day, it was empty. On Thursday afternoon, I showed up there with my fruit cup and studied for two hours undisturbed. My equanimity returned.
Friday was pellucid when I returned with my ham and Hesse. As I settled into my study, I heard the door lock behind me. I turned around. The guard grinned over me, his eyes pulsating, a rubber truncheon in hand. I fainted. When I came to, the guard was gone, and my legs were bruised and throbbing from random blows.
Painfully, I regained my feet. But in my haste to hobble away, I left my linguistics textbook. To retrieve it, the next day I called a hometown friend, who was in the Resistance, to accompany me to the Sanctuary.
“You no longer need an escort,” he said with a smile. “But I will go with you, if you wish.”
At the Sanctuary, we turned on the lights. On the floor lay the guard in the fetal position, with bruised legs and a broken neck. I regarded it for a long moment. Then I made my Big Decision. I knelt and kissed its lips.
© 2022 Leon Taylor All rights reserved.