Victor played the aliens every night, partially to make me upset.
He never said as much to me, but it was easy to tell from the way he smirked at me when I walked in; sitting in front of them on his little stool, he would watch as my face became distorted in discomfort when I heard him hit the next note. I was too tired to hide it. But it was all I gave him for months. I learned the joy of being silent.
The worst part was that he was marvelously good, and there wasn’t enough room in the shack for me to not listen. Lying exhausted in my bed, I heard the sounds through the thin wall, punctuated with Victor’s laughter. At first, to distract myself, I made up histories for him: a gifted marimba player, spoiled by his parents, teachers and friends. A manipulative musical prodigy who had used his talent to get out of tricky situations. A man with a knack for rhythm as his only redeeming factor.
That one was more a fact than a history. I would sit outside and watch the sand dunes on my day off. Watch the little scorpions crawl, the few vultures circling above. Watch the smoke and exhaust from the mines drift up to meet the piercing blue sky.
Try to think of anything else, when there isn’t much to think about.
Before the aliens, Victor used to toy with me for a little while. I’m not sure whether I managed to spoil his fun by no longer reacting to finding a tiny scorpion in my meal, finding a giant spider in the outhouse, or other such sophomoric tricks, or whether he bored of it on his own. Mercifully, he wasn’t home in the evenings for a little while. I slept better, even drew up some plans for improving our one source of running water. Not something Victor would let me do, but if he kept being away, I might be able to do it in two nights, or even over one if my day off was after. Of course, the aliens arrived soon after, and Victor was home again every night with his new torture opportunity.
Do all sentient beings, or even some non-sentient ones, have the concept of dignity? Perhaps it overlaps quite a bit with survival factors, and not appearing weak or wounded. I think the aliens were conscious of dignity, though. Even chained all together like a prison gang, it wasn’t long before I no longer heard the snuffling sounds that I registered as crying, the sounds that evoked such pathos in me. Nor did they utter the cries of pain that clashed with the soft notes of the sticks bouncing off their skulls. Victor did not let me alone with them, but kept them locked in his room, and brought them out to the tiny “living room” space that abutted the front door. A few times I had stopped in the room to watch, as if perhaps bearing witness would make such difference. Their faces were slightly wider than tall, and they had what looked like short snouts for noses. They were only about a foot tall and very hairy. Almost like a teddy bear, with such striking brown fur. It was fortunate they could breathe our atmosphere, but they couldn’t really exert in it. I imagine they must have had even more trouble with the heat than we did. Victor had tried anyway and they had wheezed and fainted. I had wanted to examine their crashed ship, but Victor had lit it on fire: fairly ineffective to the exterior, but efficiently destructive of the interior. He had made them watch. The hollowed-out thing stood next to the shack as some perverse trophy of his possession.
You have to understand, being enslaved and depending on someone to provide your needs wears you down. Especially when you’re fairly isolated. It was hard to communicate with anyone else when you worked the mines, since the foremen took glee in watching you suffer, screaming at you to shut up. Of course I had fantasized endlessly about killing Victor. I disgusted myself with how soon I turned toward desires to behave like him. Grinding his genitals under my feet while he screamed, stopping only when they were unrecognizable. Tying him down and flaying him, slowly, as if with loving care, draping myself in the bloody flaps of his skin. Making him cry and beg, watching his eyes go wide in terror, soiling his pants in autonomic abandon. But I knew how quickly that would be turned around on me. If he didn’t report for work one day to the job he loved for allowing him to terrorize and maim others, suspicion would be turned on me. I was not ready to die. It had been nine months, but I still held out hope for rescue. It was theoretically possible, but extremely unlikely. The way our ship had crashed, it killed everyone else on board. From afar, one would think no one had survived it. But I had wedged myself under the console, shaking, and the odds had landed in my favor, as I pushed my hands out hard to hold myself in the little square space as the ship landed at nearly a 45-degree angle. I watched them slide and scrabble, their hands hitting the floor uselessly and finding no purchase on the smooth material. I couldn’t hold my hand out to save them without knowing I would slip down with them and die too. The survivor’s guilt and the nightmares might have done me in, but even in their panicked eyes, I saw them see me, take reassurance in their last moments that I might live. Or that’s what I told myself. Hardly a way to know. But after three months of watching and hearing Victor’s abuses of the aliens, I felt the fire of rebellion beginning to warm the edges of my cold, tired soul.
As I heard the music drift through the shallow wall each night, I became caught in its web, like a spider’s prey. I tapped along, became lulled into an almost drugged sort of state. I hadn’t heard music in so long. We were not allowed to sing when we worked the mines. My brain flooded me with chemicals and I desperately clung to the small joy of hearing harmony and rhythm, syncopation and composition. When Victor stopped, I drifted back into myself. I became terribly nauseous as the full weight of remembering how the music was made slammed back into me. Sometimes at first I vomited, but I learned to stop myself, since I wasn’t getting much more food. Choking on bile and self-disgust, I returned to my Victor-killing fantasies, soothing myself to sleep with the idea of one day using his skull as a cup.
And then came the day number 32 died.
Names were for people. Names were for the foremen, smacking their batons into their soft palms, breathing rancid air down your neck. For the men who saw an exhausted worker, his breath coming in wheezes, as an opportunity to exert his power. A man who had been sick for a week, who stopped to sit for a moment because he could stand no longer; his head in his hands, hunched over, heaving with effort to breathe.
“Hey!” The foreman walked up to him and yelled. Startled, the worker’s head snapped up, a strangled noise coming from within. The foreman locked eyes with him; in a movement so swift it seemed surreal, he cracked the worker’s skull with his baton, his arm swinging down from on high. Then it is over; the worker has fallen over, does not stir. The foreman slips his baton into his belt loop. He laughs aloud, looking down at the pitiful emaciated pile of flesh and blood in front of him. He picks up one of the body’s thin arms in his huge hands and drags it out of sight, disappearing briefly into the horizon, before he returns an hour later, boozed up and cackling, wielding the baton to watch the workers jump when he approaches.
I was shaking with adrenaline when I came home, and I heard a note or two as I opened the door. Victor swiveled his head around, boasting his usual shit-eating grin, and my blood boiled.
I ignored him, and calmly walked into the small kitchen area to pick up the iron skillet. I was just around a small corner where he could no longer see me. I wrapped my hand around its handle, used the other to run my fingers over its worn surface. How strange, the way I could wield this tool of life, of nourishment: how I could bend its unyielding shape to my will, make it an instrument in opposition of its purpose. I only hesitated a moment before I shot out from behind the corner. Victor turned his head, and the pan collided with his face. I heard the sick crack of his nose breaking. I dropped the skillet, panting, flinching at the thud it made hitting the ground. Victor was still alive, but his eyes were closed and his head dropped, a groan of pain escaping him. I kicked him in the chest to lay him out flat, backwards. He wheezed in a way eerily similar to number 32, and bile rose in my throat. He opened his eyes to look at me, and tried to move his body; I put my foot on his chest. He fell back obediently. Blood ran from his nose and from his mouth. I saw it pooled in there when he opened it just slightly enough to say “fuck you.”
“It’s my turn, fucker,” I said, and stamped on his nose, his anguished cries becoming their own music in my ears. Each cry a punctuation of sound; each cry a beautiful counterpoint to the notes he played on the aliens’ heads. I moved my foot and stomped on his genitals as a high-pitched whine escaped him, and he began to shake with sobs. After my leg tired, I went back into the kitchen, grabbing the prep knife. He was only making small, pathetic, mewling sounds now. I knelt down and opened one of his eyelids. A bloodshot brown thing, iris swollen, but when I held the knife out so he could see it, he made a louder moan, and once again tried to move. I raised my arm up high and arced it down into his belly, the satisfaction of the feedback of the flesh filling my body, as he yelled. I laughed. I started laughing maniacally, losing control of myself, reliving the kitsch horror movies I’d seen to distance myself from the reality, while sucking the joy in like a vampire as I stabbed him relentlessly, sinking the blade into his torso over and over, until it was a bloody mess tangled with his shirt and he lay still.
I put my ear to his bleeding lips to satisfy myself that he wasn’t breathing. Exhaling, I put the knife down, shaking my arms to get rid of excess blood. I looked over at the aliens, who sat watching me in their chains. Eight pairs of eyes steadily trained on me, but they had not made a sound.
I rose to my knees slowly, shakily, and braced myself against the wall until I reached the small kitchen table. I grabbed Victor’s keyring from the table and knelt back down slowly to unlock their chain. Once free at the end, as each one stepped out of it, it freed the next one. The eight of them, an octave of suffering, shook themselves and looked up at me, and the door, which I threw open. I gestured around the apartment. “You’re free,” I said. “Take what you want.” I picked up a packet of the gruel mix Victor had been using to feed them, and tried to hand it to one. It saw it, then looked away. I placed it on the floor in front of it. It stepped over it carefully, looking at its comrades, and then it walked to the door. Each one of them followed, but one after another, mirroring the line they had been held in in captivity. Emotions churned inside me; I reminded myself that they may have no meaningful way to communicate their thanks, and they were deeply traumatized. I let my spirits lift at knowing I had freed them.
Then the last one in line turned around and met my eyes. Held my gaze for a moment. Then, in an expression it must have learned from Victor over the months, it spat with vituperative abandon in my direction, a small bubble of liquid from its dehydrated mouth landing only inches away. It held my gaze a moment more, then turned around and shuffled after its comrades.
I watched them walk out of camp, heading west. Still in their straight line, they strode off as if they knew where they were going, as if they’d find food and water before the desert wore them down. I knew little about their physiology, but I knew walking would take two days to the nearest other camp, which I had never bothered to try; in the hot desert sun, I’d get near death, and there was no reason to believe anyone in the next camp would take pity on me or share a resource as limited as potable water.
I realized I had started to shake violently.
Bracing myself against the door, my mind exploded in on me. My initial thoughts of what the fuck, I freed you, I didn’t expect anything other than your thanks – were interrupted by a deeper understanding unfolding itself, forcing its way up from my subconscious. As if they had finally communicated by telepathy, I heard them speak to me, like light washing over the dark glass. Mind to mind, face to face.
You are no hero. Our freedom was an afterthought. As though such catharsis could be anything more than temporary; as if making us bear witness to the perverse cycle of violence could make us feel whole again.
My heart was racing. My anger rose within me, pushing back at the sanctimonious sentiment. I walked over to Victor’s body, unbuttoning my shorts, and urinated on his corpse, watching the yellow stream mix with and run over the drying blood.
It was only after I lie down to sleep that sobs wracked me, erupting out of me like a wracking cough. I caressed Victor’s prize pistol, molding my hand around its shape. I begged sleep to come; the oppressive silence weighed down on my chest, heightened the stifling heat. A strange knife of regret twisted within me before piercing my heart completely. There would be no more music.
Sarah Klein is a queer disabled poet and fiction writer whose previous flash fiction has been published extensively at 365tomorrows.com. When she’s not reading or writing science fiction, she is caring for her two cats (named after sci-fi characters of course) or participating in mutual aid work.