It was all over now. The strings had stopped playing a long time ago and the dying world was breathing once more. The scars in the land that had seemed so fresh were now nothing more than grassy rivers that ran between the new towns and the new homes that filled them.
But the scars of war ran deeper than dirt and so I watched it all with a joyous face, but every night I looked up to the stars, constellations that had seemed so alien but now so familiar, and I scratched at the wounds of my own skin, and I wondered.
I wondered what if it happened again.
What if he gave me the choice to decide once more.
He lay where he had fallen and none of the others seemed concerned. The beast was terrifying. Skin like fire, teeth that bit with ferocity, and the eyes. Always the eyes.
The beast was fallen, but the eyes hunted constantly.
“What say you?”
The commander raised his hand and one of my brethren let the whip bite into the things flesh once more. I flinched, but it did not. The marks criss-crossed it’s back. The months just white lines now beneath the weeks. The red blood flowed, but the flesh would heal by morning.
“They have abandoned you.”
It happened so fast. The chains snapped taught but not before it had reached the commander. The bone of it’s skull caught his face and the wet snap of breaking bone filled the cell. The commander stumbled back and roared murder against the alien.
We went to work and this time the beast didn’t rise from the floor.
It was watching me and the sudden realisation made me bite down a squeal, deep in my larynx. One eye, the fleshy orb a muddle of bands and colours that radiated outwards, tracked me.
It knew our language. Words, phrases. It learnt of us faster than we did it and every drop of information was a weapon. Alone, I shook my head and the eye closed.
Water gave it life and I gave it water. It could have killed me that day, when I put the canteen within it’s reach.
“You will die here,” the commander said.
It showed those teeth, the lips pulling upwards, and the commander took a small step back.
“You. First,” it said.
The commander didn’t return for it for a week. Urgent business, the kind that needed him to be far away from the cells and the unspeakable alien that terrified him so much.
“What is your name?” he asked and I smiled.
His words were coming along well in the intervening days, as was my appreciation for ‘him’. I moved a small piece of stone, hopping across lines in the sand to capture one of his own. He had learnt the game in a day and now we played it constantly.
“Kal,” I said.
“Name me is Diaz.”
“My name is Diaz,” I corrected.
He repeated the phrase, over and over, and then he picked up one of his pieces and hopped one of my own. And another. In a week he was already a better player than me.
“Do you have a family?” I asked and he stopped playing.
“What are your plans?”
The commander took great delight in his new toy. Diaz let his hands claw at his neck, fingers breaking the skin of his own body as he struggled to rip the collar from around his throat. I watched the alien try and stop the pain but to no avail.
“You have nothing left to fight with. Tell me what I want to know!”
When the attack ceased he lay there and I thought finally, finally after all the beatings, we had won. The beast had been broken.
And then he started laughing.
“Do you know what the funny thing is?” Diaz said and every man in the room inched closer. The commander held the collar’s controller in a tight fist. “It’s knowing that I’m beaten to a pulp and yet you’re all still afraid of me.”
“I brought you something to eat,” I said, and laid out the few rations I’d saved.
The alien picked at them, sniffing once or twice, before swallowing in single bites. The teeth, designed for eating the flesh of other creatures, made short work of the food.
“It’s not right, what they’re doing to you,” I finally said, watching him eat.
He said nothing for the longest time, just continuing to eat. Anything he deemed unsuitable, which wasn’t much, he offered to me, and soon I found myself sitting beside him.
He was taller than me, stronger. Much faster than any of my brothers. An animal born of a world where he was a predator and not the prey, long before they had evolved to travel across the stars.
“There will come a day, very soon,” he said, around the pith of a fruit. “I decide to leave. And on this day, you will have to decide what kind of man you are.”
“But I’m a…”
I lapsed into silence and thought back to where he would have heard that word. Uttered once and caught in the creatures trap-like mind. What else had I given away without ever realising?
“I will escape, despite what your commander says. He will die because it is not in my nature to forgive evil. So will your friends.”
I looked on in horror as the alien described it’s plans, but I didn’t object. I could only look at the small board game, scratched into the dirt. I didn’t win anymore.
“I’m going to give you a choice Kal. The most important choice in your life, and I don’t want you to answer me now. You won’t be able to.
“When I escape, there will come a point where you stand between me and freedom. I will escape, have no doubt about that.”
“I don’t,” I said, with an honesty that hurt.
“When you stand in my way, you will have two options. You can stand against me or lie down of your own volition.”
“Understand,” Diaz continued, ignoring my comment, “that if you stand you will die a hero’s death, a man praised alongside your brothers in their final moments for protecting the people.”
“You would kill me?” I asked slowly.
“But… but our games, the food, our friendship!” I said.
“They are why I’m giving you this choice. We are enemies Kal. No game will change our species, no food can soften my resolve, and our friendship is one built of imprisonment. You are trapped here, just as much as I.”
“Then you mean to go through with this? You’ll escape and you’ll kill everyone. Including me.”
Saying it with my own words somehow made it all the more real. There was a truth in knowing I was speaking to the death of all those I served with.
Diaz finished his meal and turned to me. Those teeth, so sharp.
“There is another option Kal. You can choose to lie down when the fighting starts. Throw your weapon away and lie beside the bodies of your brothers. I will leave you in peace.”
“Then I’ll do that!”
“And you’ll be branded a traitor.”
My face, triumphant at finding a way for both of us to survive, fell in a single dizzying instant. I ran a finger across the badge pinned so neatly to the tunic of my uniform.
“A traitor,” I whispered.
“They will find you amongst the dead and know you were a coward. That when the moment came you gave up your people. You will carry that shame for the rest of your life. You will see it in the face of every person you meet.” Diaz grabbed my tiny hand in his own and clamped down with a force I felt sure would break my bones. “You will live, but you won’t survive.”
I look back now, sitting under the stars.
Many years have passed.
They are long gone. The aliens whose eyes were made for hunting. Whose skin healed and whose bones, born under a gravity unlike any I’d known, let them wield such ferocity with such tranquil ease.
Diaz had made his escape not long after our last meal. And, true to his word, we had come across each other in the northern passages.
The sight of him, the beast covered in my brother’s blood, only the eyes and the teeth and the desire to be free terrified me more than any memory in my lifetime. But he saw me, and he waited, as patient as those days when they brought him to the cells and they beat the skin from his bones.
Maybe, with the advantage of hindsight, I had been naive to trust the human. The rush made me grip the rifle in my hands; the fear made the bones in my knees weak.
I like to think the alien knew exactly what effect his words would have had though.
That on some small level, we shared a commonality. He was faster, stronger, smarter than we could be in every way. And in sowing that seed of choice, predator or prey, he had shared some small part of his race. He had made me better for it.
I charged at him, repeating the aliens cry against it, and I ran like a madman.
And when I woke, Diaz was gone.
The scar he left me was small but visible and even now the people thanked me, remembering the day I chased the beast away.
But I know the truth. I know Diaz brushed me aside as easily as one does a fly. I know he gave me these tokens not so the people would remember what his race could do, but so I remembered what he did, for me.
And I think to myself, if I had lain on the ground, would he have shown mercy then?
Or do the beasts from that remote world just want us all to remember that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if it means risking it all.
Because death isn’t the worst thing a human can offer you. Even if they are terrifyingly good at it.