Wow, it has been a while, hasn't it? Well, after many months of nothing, here is another Teabox Tale for your enjoyment!
Never Going Home
I have seen a lot, working in repatriations. After all, compared to the rest of life-kind, humans are just so damn easy to take. We're a great deal smaller than most sophont species for starters, and we're not exactly good at looking out for each other. A person could disappear into the night, or a hundred people, a thousand people, and you'd be hard pressed to get anyone who wasn't a blood relative to care. The closest you might get is a boss calling irate to ask why the hell their employee hasn’t turned up for work.
And once they have us, taken to market in our hundreds, we are just so damn easy to exploit. We prefer eating garbage to food that's actually good for us, our bar for mate selection is practically on the floor, and we can be reared to maturity in a mere eighteen years. Is it any wonder that to a small but not insignificant percentage of the universe we are just animals?
I think the worst I've seen was at a school on Gagnara. We are to the gagnarans as mice are to us; our bones and organs are in a similar configuration, we are afflicted by many of the same diseases, and we age in a similar fashion. Except we do so at a fraction of the size, in a fraction of the time. Their ideal model organism.
So their high-schoolers, almost centenarians in our own years, study anatomy on us. They do what's called a living diaphonisation; dipping a human man into a chemical soup that renders his flesh transparent; yellowed and bubbly like raw egg white. Their bones and organs are then made visible to be studied while they are very much still alive.
They call it a kindness. An alternative to dissection.
I have rescued a dozen of these strange glass people. It is hard to look a man in the eyes when you can see his heart beating away beneath his ribs. There is a treatment, a kind of dye bath, that renders them close to normal again, but they will always be sort of grey and translucent. It is hard to find a job if they can see your teeth through your lips when the light hits your face just right.
But this case was supposed to be a reasonably simple one. Pet cases usually are; requiring little urgent medical treatment in the field, and able to be slipped out through a back door as if they simply ran away of their own accord. The biggest hurdle was to be the environment; a sweltering world whose average conditions laid just outside of the human habitable range.
I touched down upon Lisara just before midday while the nocturnal lisarans were fast asleep, and flipped a switch that surrounded my ship with a veil that rendered it close to invisible. Before I could step out onto its surface, I donned my heavy cooling vest and painted my face and hands with emollient. I could easily desiccate in the dry heat.
At just a quarter of the average lisaran height with only a third the number of legs, my bosses doubted I could navigate the city of my own accord. A tracker worn at my wrist was to guide me; not by visual display, but haptic buzzers that bristled against my skin. This was just as well; lisaran architecture left a lot to be desired.
I was greeted by a city of vast uneven mounds; earthen in colour and ridged as if they'd been extruded in coils by a vast 3D printer. Windowless and plain, there was no discerning the buildings from one another, but the buzz of my tracker urged me forward regardless. I trudged for over an hour before my tracker told me I'd reached the place where my target was held.
Lisarans disliked light, enough so that the streets were utterly deserted at midday, so the building had no windows for discreet access. Instead, I made my entrance through a single round porthole at ground level. A touch bold, perhaps, to walk straight in through the front door and into their dusty parlour.
The buzz of my tracker indicated that my target was not on the ground floor, and the idiosyncrasies of lisaran architecture would make reaching him difficult. Stairs were not comfortable for their hyper-flexible spines. Instead, one wall of the building was covered by a rough twine surface resembling a cat scratching post, which they used to climb to higher levels with hooked talons. This leads all the way up to a room at the top of the house where the ceiling is covered edge to edge with the stuff, allowing them to roost communally like bats, though I'm sure they would not keep him in their bedchamber.
I pulled a pair of handheld hooks from my belt and put my half-remembered climbing training to good use, precariously scaling the sheer vertical wall. The first floor was a kitchen that smelled of cured meat, and the second was a bathroom of sorts with a contraption that could blast one with a cloud of cleansing dust. On the third floor, a sort of social space, I found what I was looking for; a large, tinted glass cube. I scrabbled sideways with my hooks, reaching a landing platform where I could plant my feet down firmly.
The social space was dim and echoey, the walls padded with foamy acoustic structures meant to reverberate the strange vibrations lisarans considered music. I was short of breath from the strain of the climb, but the sound of my breathing was suddenly immense, and I tried my hardest to stifle it. I could not wake the aliens sleeping upstairs.
The cube was as tall as the ceiling, and equivalent to a good sized flat in living space. It glowed softly; the surface tinted a dark red so that the lisarans could observe the creature inside without hurting their delicate eyes. A pulse from my tracker disabled the electronic lock, and a door swung open, the light from inside spilling out into the darkness.
A brown-haired figure peeked his head round the door.
He spoke softly. “Hello?”
“You are Mark Higgins, yes? I'm from Terran repatriations,” I whispered. “I've come to take you home. Quick, come with me.”
The man snorted. “No.”
“No? What do you mean no?!”
“I'm good, man.”
I folded my arms. “You were abducted by aliens, but you're good?”
“Just come in,” he sighed.
Mark was a great deal fatter than the image of the twenty-one-year-old abductee my bosses had given me, but then again it had been a decade since he was taken. He wore clothing resembling some sort of strange pyjamas, tailored by hands who probably didn't know how human joints were supposed to bend, and his feet were bare.
The inside of the cube was pleasantly cool, and the humidity in the air hit me like a soothing wave as I stepped inside. In one corner of the room was a bed that looked comfortable enough, and in the other a pair of large, covered dishes and water bottle strapped to the wall. On the far side was a comically oversized exercise wheel, and next to it a sofa and a television. It was a prison, without a doubt, but not one without its creature comforts.
“You've come a long way,” Mark said, heading for the dishes. He lifted the lid off of one of them and produced a sort of thick, round biscuit. “Fancy a pellet? This one's a savoury one.”
I tried to refuse it, but he thrust it into my hands regardless. It was bready, with a sort of vaguely greasy surface, and the aroma it produced was admittedly rather enticing.
Mark looked at me with expectant eyes as I took a tentative bite. It was… Good? That particular sort of savoury you only usually find in a fast food burger; a jolt of primal pleasure, but a pollutant of the body.
“Yeah, so… I knew you guys would come for me eventually. But I ain't going. I've got it good here. But you can, y'know, stay a while if you wanna.”
I wiped the crumbs from my mouth with a hand. “Sorry. You've got to go.”
“Yeah. No,” he replied. “If you try to take me, I'll make a scene and they'll wake up.”
“Right,” I sighed.
He led me over to the couch at the corner of the cube, and we sat down in front of the television. To my surprise, it was playing an actual human broadcast; a comedy of some sort, though the volume was too low to discern quite what was happening.
“So you can tell my family or whoever sent you that I'm still alive and junk,” Mark told me, in between bites of a food pellet. “But I have it good here. Food and water and TV, and they’re gonna put me back out to stud in the spring, so that’s something.”
I nearly choked in surprise. “I… I’m sorry, what?”
He gave a wicked grin. “I don’t think they know how human reproduction works, but I ain’t complaining.”
I looked at him; thirty-one, fat, living in a tank like an animal. How was he content? How was he not half-mad from all the things that had been taken from him? All of the milestones he’d never reached; work, marriage, children. Why wasn’t he begging me to take him home?
“Your mother will be so upset when she hears all this,” I told him. “She begged us to go and find you. Crying on her knees, she was. And now you won’t come home.”
He stood up and went back over to the food dishes in the corner of the room. “The mother who would scream at me when I couldn’t get a job? Yeah. No thanks.”
He offered me another pellet before he sat down again, but I refused it.
“So is that what this is all about, then? You don’t wanna work, so you’re just gonna stay here? Sleeping. Eating food pellets like a hamster. Well there’s more to life than that.”
“No,” Mark scoffed between big bites. “Work every day just to afford a place to live? Spend a fortune having kids just so they can grow up to do the same? I’m happy being a hamster, thanks.”
“That’s shameful. You should… Be ashamed.”
He finished his first food pellet and then began to gnaw on his second. “Yeah well I’m not, so…”
I looked at him. At the hedonistic dullness behind his eyes. At the odd glisten to the skin on his pale face. Did he just misunderstand something I had grasped at unquestioningly, or was there something to his rejection? I did not want to unpack my knee-jerk frustration with him, lest I didn’t like what I found there.
“So if you’re really, truly staying,” I said. “Then I need to find a way to prove to repatriations that I found you, and that all of this is your choice. Cause’ if I go back without you then they’re gonna think I didn’t even try.”
Mark sighed. “I dunno, man. You want a clump of my hair or something?”
“Oh, so it looks like I found your corpse and just didn’t want to carry it back?”
It was then when I remembered the little communicator I had in my backpack. It was an outdated thing, and more for my own entertainment during downtime than for official business, but it had a camera and microphone. I could make him record a statement. His mother would go spare, sure. But it would keep my hands clean.
“You good to appear on camera?” I asked.
He gave a dismissive snort. “Whatever.”
I pulled the small, black communication from my backpack and trained its camera upon him. He looked little and pink on the cheap colour display.
“You are Mark Higgins,” I said, my voice firm and deliberate. “A Terran citizen who has been held hostage on Lisara for the past decade.”
He took another bite of his food pellet. His teeth appeared a strange sort of matte yellow. “Yep.”
“And despite our very extensive rescue campaign, despite the conditions of your imprisonment, you are electing to stay here with your captors?”
He stepped aside and pointed to the TV in the corner. “Look at this. You call this imprisonment? I’m good!”
“I need a firm yes or no. Do you fear reprisals from them?”
“Yes, for God’s sake,” he announced emphatically. “I’ve got a good thing going here! I’m never gonna be hungry, I’m never gonna be homeless. And if I’m begging for scraps then it’s only because it’s fun to beg. This, here, is more dignified and meaningful than any of you on Earth could offer me.”
“Right…” I sighed.
I shut off the camera and looked at him. At the firmness of his unmoved facial expression.
“Look, man,” I told him. “Is there anything at all I can do for you?”
“I dunno. You couldn’t send me a new games console could you?”
“No!” I snapped.
With that, I left him there. I found myself hovering in front of the door of the great cube for a while, just in case he came to his senses, but the strange pet-man had no sort of revelation.
Quietly, I slunk back down through the house. To my momentary horror, there was a lone Lisaran awake in the kitchen; standing on its hind claws and using a knife to carve thin red ribbons from a huge haunch of cured meat. But its reaction to my presence was not hostile. It threw me a scrap of its breakfast and spoke a few soft words in its strange tongue, before returning unphased to its chore.
“Poor thing.” My translator buzzed robotically in my ear, parsing the creature’s words. “I don’t suppose you’re used to a free meal.”
By the time I made it back out outside the great red ball of the late afternoon sun was just starting its retreat. A few early-birds were making their way down the street, but between their thick sun goggles and the clouds of dust they kicked up in their wake, I was practically invisible to them. I returned to my ship, its paintwork just slightly sandblasted, and prepared for my ascent. With a click of a button, the footage I had shot disappeared into the ether, along with a hastily-typed mission report. It would cause a stir at home, no doubt, but it would at least not be my problem just yet. A good long month in stasis would see to that.