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On the Fringes

Chapter Text

I had to shut the television off. It was the same story all the time for the past couple of months. Humanity victorious, the Elders defeated, ADVENT in disarray. Everybody cheering and hollering, as if most of the planet wasn't still a smoking, smoldering heap that might never again know a touch of green or the flow of clean water. Sure, Earth was free, I guess. Some celebrations were in order. But how long were they going to wave that banner around before they realized things were still just as bad as they were before? Before they realized that the time for celebration was long past, and it was time to roll those sleeves up and get to the real ugly work of reconstruction and reclamation?

I'd fume and rant some more about it to myself later. The clock said five in the morning, which meant it was feeding time. I slipped into my dirty overalls, slid on my ballcap and headed downstairs; the creak seemed to have gotten worse, and the banister wobbled just as badly. I kept telling myself I'll fix it but it just wasn't high on the list of priorities. Feeding first, then feed myself, then I needed to work on the perimeter security system. Either the detection protocol was degraded or the foxes kept finding new ways in. Of all the animals ADVENT wiped out, foxes managed to slip under the radar. Somehow I wasn't surprised.

I guess I couldn't be too mad at ADVENT's laxity. Had they been any more thorough, I would've lost my animals.

I pushed through the camo netting, pausing for just a minute to rearrange some of the branches caught in the mesh entrance. I passed by the console and glanced at it to make sure everything was as it should've been; temperature and humidity were good, airflow was holding steady, water collection systems were working perfectly. I wanted to build an automated dispenser to save myself a bit of time in the mornings, but I never seemed able to find the time. As such, the most advanced feeding method I had was a bucket underneath a manual dispenser. The boys and girls in the next room were already excited; they heard the feed plinking against the dented walls of the aluminum bucket.

"Hey guys, how's it goin'?" The chickens crowded around as I opened the door. They knew the routine. They've known it their whole lives, for what little that encompassed. It's something I've always felt bad about. They're animals after all; they should see the sun, get fresh air, be able to feel the elements on their bodies. Instead they've got heat lamps on timers, water from drippers, and fans to fake a breeze. Truth be told I'm not sure they would know what to do with a damn worm if they saw one. But I had to do this. I've always had to do this. We've been hiding ever since the invasion, but the ADVENT ban on animals only made our concealment that much more important. Even now, with humanity back in control, I couldn't risk letting them be seen. What if some passing 'resistance' guys decided to take them for the greater good? Screw that, what's the greater good ever done for me? No, best to just live out the rest of my life here, alone -- what little that encompassed. Things were simple here. Everywhere else was chaos.

I took stock of them as I scattered the feed by hand. Marlene looked a little thin. Holly's bald spot was still there; I don't think she's sick, so another hen must be bickering with her. Judy was looking plump, and she's getting to be that age; she could be the next one on my table. Cathy's seemed to have lost interest in her chicks; I guess it was time to move them to the second enclosure. Iris and Penny were getting along again, so that's good, unless one of them just moved onto bugging Holly. And then there's Harvey; he seemed to have calmed down, so I'll keep him in here. The hens liked to have a rooster strutting about. I was thinking about building a third enclosure for him, he can get a little testy sometimes.

The sharp snap of a popped light bulb brought me out of my thoughts; one of the heat lamps called it quits. I'll have to get another bulb from the basement. Another thing to add to my list.

After the hens and rooster have had their fill, the chicks were next in line. They get fed in their own enclosure, so an agitated adult doesn't get too ornery with them. So far all of the little guys appeared healthy. I sure hope they stayed that way since they were going to be the next generation. I checked their water drippers, and before I left I noticed a dip by the far wall of the enclosure, like someone had been digging. But the straw inside was undisturbed, so it must have been from the outside. It's got to be a damn fox. I'll have to add some chickenwire before filling that hole in tonight. Yet another thing on my to-do list.

Collected eggs. Tended to the garden. Had breakfast. Beat the unused eggs and froze them in the basement. Kept the left-over veggies for dinner. Morning routine over.

The perimeter detection software was the next big thing. It's always the biggest pain in in the ass I have to deal with. I have to drag an old laptop out to the invisible fence line and spend hours debugging the code. I'll be on the verge of fixing it, only to find some new error's popped up in the code in a place I never even changed. Sometimes the laptop loses its wireless connection to the basement server and I have to spend forever walking up and down the fence line looking for a spot with good signal. Almost reminds me of what most people would call the goold old days, where we only had little problems in our day-to-day lives. For all the frustration this crap caused me, it's worth it. Haven't lost a chicken to a predator in years, so I haven't given up on it, even with its myriad bugs. Couldn't afford to if I wanted to stay here by my lonesome and survive.

By the time the software was fixed -- for the time being -- the sun had begun to set. My stomach grumbled angrily, so I headed back inside. Dinner's just more eggs and veggies. When I was done eating, my anger over the morning broadcasts had subsided and I switched the television back on. Surprise, surprise -- more hoohawing about how humanity has won. Footage abounded of alien forces still being routed across the globe, of the resistance forces waving their flags and shouting 'vigilo confido' while the news anchors play up the pride-of-humanity angle for the fighters. They damn near televised an execution before they realized what was happening and the camera panned around. Still heard the gunshots, though -- that made my skin crawl. It was at that point I had had enough. Switched everything off.

Settling in was a strange ritual in that every time I paused at the sink to brush my teeth, I said a little prayer to god that the plumbing still worked. The property has its own well, but the pipes were old -- like, older than dirt. I anxiously turned the handle, wondering if today was going to be the day; regardless of what curses I spat during my daily chores, the powers that be saw fit to keep the water running for the time being. I brushed my teeth, stripped to my boxers, and climbed into bed. Only to remember then that I had forgotten to fill in that hole by the chicks' enclosure. I agonized for a few torturous moments, tossing and turning. I even switched the light back on a few times, ready to crawl back outside. Screw it, I thought. I decided to take care of it tomorrow morning, and drifted off to sleep.

A shrill buzzing woke me up about two in the morning. It wasn't my clock but the fence alarm I've got wired up to my basement server, the one that tells me if the perimeter's been crossed by something roughly fox-sized. The thought briefly crossed my mind that if I hadn't fixed the software I'd have gotten a full night's rest, but then again I could be down a chicken or more. I threw on old ratty t-shirt, grabbed the shotgun from beneath my bed, and rushed into the pitch black. The moment I set foot outdoors I could already hear the commotion coming from my chickens and my heart sank. I flicked on the muzzle flashlight, checked my gun, saw the flashy red of a loaded shell, and made a beeline for the coop.

I stopped dead in my tracks. The latch on the door was open. Foxes didn't do that. They can't. I mean, they could -- they can be pretty smart -- but why would it dig one night and then suddenly know how to use the door latch the next? And the tracks going into the coop were real weird. No paw prints, just a deep gouge in the dirt. Did it drag something inside? Of all the places to store a kill, it's got to use my chicken coop? And why the hell was the light on? The adrenaline surging through me left no time for useless questions and I barged in, leveling my gun at what I supposed was a fox's height.

Only to see a long, long tail that went deathly still the moment I entered. My jaw dropped and I tracked up, and up, and up further until I was staring eye to eye with by all accounts was just a giant freakin' snake -- with arms.

Its whole body was frozen, its amber eyes focused on me, one of my chickens in its grasp throwing an absolute fit. In the lifetimes this snake and I spent staring at one other, I remembered what I had seen on television: alien soldiers. Used to look different during the initial invasion. Spat venom. Newsfeeds called'em vipers, though with the hood they looked more like cobras. Lackeys of the Elders, instruments of death and malcontent, perpetrators of unspeakable acts of cruelty against humankind. At least, that's what the television said. They were fearless and always on the move, impossible to pin down and even harder to kill.

This one looked nothing like that. Creepy as all hell, sure. But with my shotgun pointed at its chest, I absolutely saw fear in its eyes. A desire to run, to preserve itself. A piece of its armor was missing, exposing half its chest and what looked like some birdshot wounds around what appeared to be a human-shaped torso. A fist-sized chunk of flesh was missing from the bottom right edge of its hood; dark yellow blood dripped intermittently from its wounds. They must have been fairly recent.

I could kill it. It would have been so easy. Wasn't that my duty? As a member of humankind, shouldn't I? One of the many tools of our former oppressors -- why shouldn't I kill it?

"Drop my chicken." Part of me hoped it wouldn't understand, that it simply couldn't. I hoped it would just make a threatening move and give me an excuse to pull the trigger. For all I knew it had just been in a fight; maybe it had just killed someone before being forced to retreat.

Unfortunately, it immediately obeyed. Judy fell to the ground, angry and noisy before quieting down and joining the rest of the chickens cowering in the far corner. The alien's gaze flickered to my gun before it seemed to recoil, sliding backwards a couple of feet. Was it cowering, too? What happened to the fearless killer the newsfeeds always showed? Where was the predatory instinct that made them vicious beasts? Where was the animal that I wouldn't feel bad about killing?

"You understand english?" It nodded near imperceptibly, perhaps afraid anything more might set me off. "Do you speak it?" It shook its head just once; again, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of movement.

It was not immediately threatening, even for how imposing it looked. It was clearly wounded. I watched the tongue flick out past its lips and its eyes would try as hard as they could to glance at my chickens without moving its head; it was obviously hungry.

If I pulled the trigger now, I'd just be an executioner.

"You can't have a chicken. I can't do that," I said, lowering my gun to my hip but with the barrel still pointed at it. The cat was out of the bag now; what harm would there be in taking it down to my basement? I've got plenty of eggs and veggies in freezers. "I can give you something else and send you on your way. That fair?"

It nodded earnestly. I jerked my head towards the door and began to step backwards, still keeping my weapon pointed in its direction. It understood and began to follow me out, keeping a healthy distance between it and myself. I kept walking backwards towards the house until reaching the cellar, where I kicked the latch open. The doors were too heavy to just lift with my foot, though. I motioned with my gun at the entrance.

"Open it and I'll follow you down."

At this it hesitated. I suppose I might, too; a stranger behind me with a gun wanted me to descend into an underground bunker. Lots of old horror films or crime dramas might end or start this way. But hunger is a very powerful motivator -- I would know. The alien only thought for a moment longer before slithering up to the cellar doors and throwing them open, then carefully wound its way down the stone steps. The motion-sensing lights flickered on, bathing the basement in a strong white glow, and I followed down after it. This was where I kept damn near everything; food, water, spare clothing and bedding, my freezers, generators and fuel, my server for the various electronics around the property. It knew I had chickens; everything else seemed insignificant by comparison.

"Here," I said, circling around it to open one of the freezers. With my gun still trained on the snake, I reached in with my free hand and fished out two large bowls of beaten eggs then placed them both on the floor. Each bowl was probably about five or six eggs worth -- not that it mattered. I had plenty to spare. "This is all I've got for protein. You'll have to wait for it to defrost. Afterwards you could drink it if you wanted to, or heat it up and scramble them. You know, heat it up until it starts to turn solid. Whitish-yellow and brown are good, any darker and you're burning them."

I backed away and it came forward, gingerly picking up each bowl as if it were some sort of trap. In all honesty, it did seem thoroughly confused. It was almost like it was unable to process what was happening. Had it not known an ounce of kindness before? I figured ADVENT never treated its footsoldiers as anything other than tools, and I highly doubt any aliens got much courtesy from humans. Maybe it actually was confused.

I grabbed a tiny package -- one of many -- about half the size of a child's lunchbox, from one of the central shelves and slid it across the ground. "Home-made first-aid kit. It's only got clean rags and alcohol in it. Clean your wounds. Fair warning: the alcohol will hurt like a bitch. I mean -- it's going to hurt a lot." I couldn't spare antibiotics. I didn't know a damn thing about dosage for an alien, or if it would even be effective. The rags and alcohol would have to do.

"And here," I said. I flipped the lid on a plastic container and grabbed a light blanket, then dropped it on the ground between us. The snake cautiously inched its tail forward and wrapped it around the blanket and first-aid kit before dragging it back. "This time of year, days are always nice but the nights can get chilly. You can stay warm with that. From here, you head west and you'll crest a small hill. A few dozen yards past that is the edge of my property line. Do you get what I'm saying? I'm not going to see you again, am I?"

Those amber eyes still wide with confusion couldn't tear themselves away from the eggs, kit, and blanket. I had to repeat myself before those slitted pupils turned towards me. The alien slowly shook its head.

"Go on, then," I said, using my hands to motion towards the stairs. "And don't -- don't get yourself killed, I guess. That's good food and a good blanket. I'd hate for it to go to waste."

Its tail twitched over and over, like some sort of anxious habit. It turned slowly and slithered up the stairs, carefully so as not to drop the lifelines I had given it. I followed a short ways behind, just to keep it within eyesight as it made its own way off into the impenetrable black again. For as dark as it was -- it must've been close to three -- I didn't have to watch long before it seemed to dissolve into the night. Despite our...amiable meeting, it still made my hair stand up to know a giant, intelligent snake was out there and I couldn't see it.

I didn't get another wink of sleep that night. Helping an alien -- what sort of human was I?